Skip to main content
Oberlin's Sierra Leone Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue
Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin (1991)
  • Kathy Curnow
Oberlin College's Allen Art Museum owns an ivory saltcellar made by a West African artist for a Portuguese client in the late 15th or early 16th century in Sierra Leone. The artist had to consider what foreign and local features to include in this export piece; it conforms in shape to European cups or chalices and depicts some Portuguese, but also includes what appears to be a local motif of dogs confronting snakes. The facial style is decidedly local, resembling the prognathous faces of contemporaneous stone sculptures. The saltcellar is topped with an image of the kneeling Virgin Mary holding the Christ Child, a motif that appears on some similar sculptures from the area. Anomalies in this figure suggest it might not be original; recent x-rays were consistent with the section that the finial ivory was original, but had been recarved. This likely took place after breakage, probably in the 20th century. As such, the ivory allows consideration of how Sierra Leonean both accommodated foreign patrons but were unable or unwilling to shake off all their own training, as well as how a Western restorer, attempting to mimic African style, could not escape his own cultural and artistic conditioning.
  • Afro-Portuguese ivories,
  • African ivory,
  • Otherness,
  • Foreign patronage,
  • African art,
  • Sierra Leone
Publication Date
Spring 1991
Citation Information
Kathy Curnow. "Oberlin's Sierra Leone Saltcellar: Documenting a Bicultural Dialogue" Allen Memorial Art Museum Bulletin Vol. 44 Iss. 2 (1991) p. 12 - 23
Available at: