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Core Concept: Jewelry

A porcelain vase, a glass beaker, and a wool tunic might have been made as luxury items or intended for a social elite, but the materials they were made of—sand, clay, animal hair—were common enough. With ivory, jade, and lacquer, we arrive at rarer materials. Ivory and jade have been considered precious in themselves. Lacquer is unique to East Asia, where it has been the basis of an important artistic tradition for some three thousand years.

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Technically, ivory may refer to the teeth and tusks of a number of large mammals. In practice, it is elephant tusks that have been the most widely sought-after and treasured form. Today considered an endangered species, Asian elephants once ranged from the coast of Iran through the Indian sub-continent, southern China, and Southeast Asia. African elephants once roamed much of the continent south of the Sahara desert. Trade in elephant tusks arose in ancient times and continued unchecked well into the 20th century, bringing raw ivory to cultures that did not have local access to it. Today the ivory trade in India is banned; the trade in Africa is restricted, monitored, and periodically suspended.

Ivory was treasured not only by cultures that obtained it through trade but also by cultures for whom elephants were a living presence. Many African peoples associated elephants symbolically with rulers, for they were seen to be mighty, powerful, wise, and long-lived. In the Yoruba city of Owe, in present-day Nigeria, only the king or titled chiefs would have been permitted to wear the armlet illustrated here (12.12). Carved from a single piece of ivory, it consists of two interlocking cylinders. The inner cylinder is finely pierced in an airy openwork pattern and punctuated by human heads carved in high relief. They may represent people over whom the wearer had power. The outer cylinder, which can shift slightly to the left or right, depicts kneeling hunchbacks, monkeys on leashes, and interlocking circles of crocodiles biting the heads of mudfish. Hunchbacks were associated with the deity Obatala, who had fashioned human bodies. He is said to have created hunch-backs while drunk, and he is thus their patron. Crocodiles and mudfish were royal symbols that linked rulers to Olokun, the deity of the sea who brought wealth and fertility. Scholars have suggested that such richly symbolic ornaments were worn at the festival of Ose, which celebrated the origins of Yoruba civilization.

Arm ornament. Yoruba, 16th century. Ivory, 511/16 × 4⅛ × 4⅛″.
National Museum for African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Jade is a common name for two minerals, nephrite and jadeite. Ranging in color from white through shades of brown and green, the two stones are found principally in East and Central Asia and Central America. Although their underlying structures differ, they share the extreme hardness, the ice-cold touch, and the mesmerizing, translucent beauty that have caused jade to be treasured in cultures lucky enough to have access to it.

The ancient Olmecs, whose jade figure of a shaman we looked at in Chapter 2 (see 2.37), prized green jade. They associated its color with plant life—especially with corn, their most important crop—and its translucence with rainwater, on which agricultural bounty depended. In China, jade of all colors has been prized and carved for some six thousand years. In early Chinese belief, the stone was credited with magical properties.

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he magnificent ivory vessel illustrated here was carved during the late 15th or early 16th century by a sculptor of the Sapi culture, which flourished then along the West African coast in the region of present-day Sierra Leone. A lidded bowl aan elaborate pedestal, it resembles a European chalice, though it was made to store salt. Male and female attendants ring the base, alternating with vigilant dogs that bare their teeth at snakes descending from above. Stylized roses adorn the lid.

A stunning example of African artistry, the vessel is intriguing for the way it mingles African and European forms and imagery. In fact, it was made to please Portuguese clients, who probably supplied the African artists with visual materials such as woodcut illustrations of roses, a flower that West Africans would not have known. Early Portuguese explorers had been deeply impressed by the skill of the ivory carvers they encountered in Africa, and for a century or so they commissioned works such as this for European collectors.

Artworks made within one culture specifically for export to another are known as export art. Like this ivory salt cellar, they illustrate how artists adapt to foreign tastes and expectations. Many cultures have produced export arts. India, for example, has been known since ancient times for textiles, which it exported widely. An example is the patterned textile we know as chintz. Although today chintz is printed mechanically, the patterns were originally drawn and dyed by hand. Europeans conceived a passion for chintz during the 17th century, but they wanted the patterns modified to suit European tastes. Responding to this new market, Indian textile artists developed a hybrid style featuring flowering tree patterns derived from Indian, European, and Chinese sources.

During the 19th century, ceramists in Japan began to create porcelain especially for export to the West. Unlike porcelain produced for domestic clients, Japanese export porcelain often featured scenes or figures painted in traditional styles. The painted decoration allowed Western collectors to understand the objects as art, for painting was viewed as a fine art in the West, whereas ceramics were not.

Most export arts have been arts of daily life, the subject of this chapter. But paintings and sculptures have also been produced for export. In the late 18th and 19th centuries, for example, painters in China's port cities produced export watercolors depicting inland China, which was then off-limits to Western traders. To make their images more accessible, the painters adopted European conventions such as rectangular formats, linear perspective, and chiaroscuro modeling. European collectors took these images to be examples of Chinese art and faithful depictions of Chinese life. In fact, the images reflected what Chinese artists thought their European customers wanted to see.

Export arts are the ancestors of today's tourist arts, versions of “ethnic” art forms made as souvenirs for visitors. Often fashioned with great skill, tourist arts have been dismissed as inauthentic. Yet patronage, including outside patronage, has often played a key role in art. Moreover, over time, some forms that originated as tourist arts have come to seem traditional. We might better use these arts to examine our ideas about authenticity, what role it plays in our system of artistic values, and why.

Lidded Saltcellar. Sapi artist, Sierra Leone, 15th–16th century. Ivory, height 11¾″. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
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The jade vase illustrated here depicts two carp leaping belly to belly (12.13). Like many objects in Chinese culture, it carries a symbolic meaning. Popularly believed to swim in pairs, fish such as carp are one of the many motifs associated with a successful marriage, for they are happy in their element and produce innumerable offspring. Offered as a wedding gift, such a vase would have served as a permanent and visible wish to the couple for a harmonious life together, blessed by abundance and many children.

Vase in the form of two carp. China, 18th century. Green jade, height 6⅜″.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Lacquer is made of the sap of a tree that originally grew only in China. Harvested, purified, colored with dyes, and brushed in thin coats over wood, the sap hardens into a smooth, glasslike coating. The technique demands great patience, for up to thirty coats of lacquer are needed to build up a substantial layer, and each must dry thoroughly before the next can be applied. Ancient Chinese artisans used lacquer to create trays, bowls, storage jars, and other wares that were lightweight and delicate-looking yet water-resistant and airtight. Exported along with other luxury goods over the long overland trade route known as the Silk Road, Chinese lacquerware was admired as far away as the Roman Empire.

Knowledge of lacquer spread early from China to Korea and Japan, as did cultivation of the sap-producing tree. Asian artists developed a variety of techniques for decorating lacquerware. In China, a favorite method was to apply layer after layer of red lacquer, building up a surface thick enough to be carved in relief. Trays, boxes, and even entire pieces of furniture were produced in carved lacquer. In Japan, artists perfected the technique of inlay, creating designs by setting materials such as ivory, mother-of-pearl, and silver into the lacquer ground. Another favorite Japanese technique is called maki-e, sprinkled picture, in which powdered gold or silver is applied to a lacquer surface before it has dried. Both techniques were used to create a design of poppies on the tiered picnic box illustrated here (12.14). Its four separate compartments would typically have held fish, vegetables, pickles, and rice for a pleasurable meal outdoors. Poppies stood for fun-lovingness in the traditional Japanese language of flowers, making them an appropriate motif for a carefree outing.

Tiered picnic box. Japan, late 17th century. Wood, black lacquer, gold hiramaki-e, silver powder, and shell; 10¾ × 10¾ × 15″.
The British Museum, London.