Musical instruments, when not sounding the call to war, were important objects that announced a ruler's arrival and entertained him or her with pleasing sounds. This richly hued ivory horn was made for a Mende paramount chief of Sierra Leone. It may predate British colonization and the introduction of staffs with a silver knob bearing the British coat of arms.
The imagery carved on this horn is intriguing. Near the top of the instrument a nude female stands on a platform between two wheel-like forms and holds her breasts. Below and in opposition to the female figure lies a lizard in low relief, a raised square amulet (opposite the lizard) and a loop for a fiber or leather carrying cord. Concentric circles, half circles, and multiple bands are incised on the horn or carved in relief.
The meaning of the figures and patterns on this instrument is not fully understood. What can be cited here are the contexts in which the imagery occurs in the art of the Mende, Sherbro, Sapi, and Temne peoples. The wheel form, for example, is found on the top of a gbini, a mask associated with the power of the Mende paramount chief, and resembles the shape of the paramount chief's crown. This motif is also found on a Renaissance-period ivory saltcellar, one of the so-called Afro-Portuguese ivories that were exported to Europe and destined for the tables of the nobility. The standing female figure corresponds to one that is attached to a harp of Temne origin illustrated without commentary in a missionary publication from the early 19th century. The rectangular shapes appear as decoration of the Mende sowei helmet masks of the Sande society that initiates girls into womanhood. They represent amulets that are sometimes covered with silver, gold, or leather and contain Islamic inscriptions believed to have spiritual power. Finally, depending upon when the patterns were introduced, they may have been inspired by the British orb, a symbol of royal power. Further study is required to interpret the meaning of the imagery on this horn.
Roslyn A. Walker, The Arts of Africa at the Dallas Museum of Art (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2009), 86.
- Smithsonian Encyclopedia
Learn about some other types of African instruments.