The Humbold Forum is 2021’s first major museum opening. It combines original baroque architecture and modern design by Franco Stella for a celebration of non-European art in the heart of Berlin. One of their debut exhibitions is ‘Terrible Beauty. Elephant – Humans – Ivory’, an exploration of humanity’s problematic relationship with ivory. Here, co-curator Alberto Saviello has picked six standout exhibitions from the show to tell us about.
The first object seen in the exhibition is immediately a special highlight. It is a small mammoth figurine made of mammoth ivory, only 3.7m high (image one). This sculpture is one of the oldest figural representations in the world – about 40,000 years old. It illustrates not only how enormously durable ivory is, but also that the material played an important role in the artistic creativity of the early homo sapiens. One of the oldest musical instruments, a fragment of a flute made of mammoth ivory, will also be on display in the exhibition. The small mammoth figure and the flute were, like numerous other Stone Age objects made of ivory, found in the caves of the Swabian Alb in Germany, which today is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Ivory was a symbol of wealth and sophistication. This was particularly true in the Baroque period. The European courts promoted the art of ivory carving and turning. Masters of this art, such as the "Furienmeister" represented in the exhibition, created objects of extreme virtuosity for the stately table and treasury. But not only professionals worked with the noble and expensive material of elephant tusks, princes and princesses were also skilled in using the material. For example, the young Archduke and later Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I was trained in using the lathe as part of his princely education. He is said to have produced this lidded tankard (image two) himself at the age of 14.
The exhibition moves from small to the large – from the manufactured ivory object and work of art to the tusks and their bearers, the elephants. In the section titled "Local and Global", tusks come into view in their original form. Like hardly any other natural resource, elephant tusks have become a symbol of the exploitation of the people and animals of the African continent. The tusk from Angola, with its frieze of approximately 90 figures spiralling around the tooth, eloquently expresses the local social consequences of European colonialism (image three). The numerous depictions of violence are striking – for example, a troop of elephant hunters armed with rifles, a bound man being abducted, and a man being forced down and threatened with a machete. With such objects, produced specifically for European buyers, the native artists held up a mirror to the colonizers.
Regardless of the suffering associated with its extraction, ivory still stands for purity and beauty. In prehistoric times, ivory was used for the manufacture of toiletries, and the metaphor of "ivory" beauty has survived into today's advertising for cosmetics, despite the racist idealisation of light skin associated with it. However, the late 18th century toilet mirror (image four), completely covered with ivory veneer, did not only represent the beauty and virtue of its owner at the time. Unlike smaller ivory objects, such as combs and fans, which were by then within reach of a broader European class, such furniture completely encased in ivory was reserved for the elite of the British Empire, especially the leading employees of the English East India Company, which controlled the Indian subcontinent. The toilet mirror was produced in Vizagapatam on India's east coast, combining the 'exotic' ivory with furniture forms of European classicism.
The second half of the exhibition focuses on the elephant. The fascination with ivory is also due to its origin from the largest land creature. From a biological point of view, the elephant is a keystone species that decisively shapes entire ecosystems. From the perspective of human culture, it is a symbol of strength and power as well as gentleness and justice. The elephant, therefore, plays a central role in many cultures and religions. This is also the case with this elephant mask (image five), which was worn during performances of the Kuosi Society of the Bamileke in western Cameroon. The mask was part of an elaborate and costly full-body costume with indigo fabrics, red parrot feathers, a leopard skin, and horse tail whips in the hands. Thus, the costume combines various symbols of power and prosperity. The elephant is considered a royal beast. The Fon, the Bamileke king, was said to possess the ability to take on the form of this animal.
One theme that runs through the exhibition is the much-debated issue of provenance. Many objects in European museums came into their possession illegally as a result of colonial crimes. The provenance of the elephant mask also requires an in-depth investigation. It was given to the Berlin Museum in 1913 by Karl Adametz, a captain of the colonial troops of the German colony of Cameroon. Adametz led a punitive expedition to suppress indigenous peoples in the Cameroon grasslands in the summer of 1912.
In discussing the interrelations of elephants, humans and ivory, the exhibition also looks at the biology of elephants living today, and the mammoth, and shows the far-reaching significance these species had and have. The model of permafrost can serve as an example of this (image six). As a result of climate change, the permafrost of the Siberian steppes is melting and releasing the tusks of the mammoths that lived there just a few thousand years ago. Since trade in mammoth ivory, unlike that in elephant ivory, is still permitted, these tusks are coveted raw materials that are tracked down by professional “hunters”. What many do not know is that the millions of mammoths wandering the steppes back then contributed to the compaction of the snow and thus to the creation of the “eternal ice” that is permafrost. The disappearance of mammoths, and the dramatically poor situation for elephants today, have profound consequences for the ecological fabric of planet Earth.
Written by ARTE Generali author Eddy Frankel
For information about the exhibition click HERE