Ivory salt cellar

From Benin, Nigeria, probably 16th century AD


Portuguese traders arrived on the west coast of Africa during the late fifteenth century in search of trade, treasure and political influence. By the sixteenth century the city of Benin in modern Nigeria was trading pepper, cloth, ivory and slaves with the Portuguese in exchange for luxury goods. The Portuguese also commissioned Sapi artists along the coast of western Africa in present-day Sierra Leone and Guinea Bissau, and Yoruba or Edo artists of Benin to produce decorative spoons, more elaborate salt cellars and hunting horns for sale to sailors.

The ivory salt cellars combine images of status from two cultures: the Portuguese Christian religious imagery, coats of arms, and scenes of the nobility hunting; and Benin motifs of royalty and men of high rank with swords and elaborate costumes.

The Virgin and Child surmount the lid of this salt cellar, symbolically triumphant over a series of snakes which embellish the lower part of the vessel.

Frequently referred to as 'Afro-Portuguese ivories', these objects are now seen as perhaps the first examples of 'tourist art' from Africa.

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Ivory salt cellar

  • Detail of base

    Detail of base

  • View from above

    View from above


More information


P. Girshick Ben-Amos, The art of Benin (London, The British Museum Press, 1995)


Height: 31.000 cm

Museum number

AOA 1981.Af35.1.a, b



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