Pondering the Pachyderm: The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture

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The Elephant and Its Ivory in African Culture

The only thing more vast than the elephant is the earth.

--A Yoruba proverb

The African elephant--the largest land animal on the planet--stands out as one of the most potent symbols of the animal kingdom. It is distinguished by its size, flexible trunk, ivory tusks, and enormous fanlike ears. African peoples have coexisted with the animal for a very long time and have seen it in its fullest dimensions. They have observed, admired, and sometimes feared its nature. They have paid homage to its size and strength, learned from watching it relate to other animals, and competed with it for food and land. They have also hunted it for its abundant meat, strong hide, hair, bone, and precious tusks.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the elephant has nourished the African imagination. Its image is creatively transformed in African art and literature. The rich and enduring presence of the elephant in African art reflects as much about human society as about the animal itself.

The Image of the Elephant

When elephant steps on trap, no more trap.--An Akan proverb

The image of the elephant appears on some of the most important ritual objects used in ancestor veneration, masquerades, and rites of passage. Yet it also adorns humble domestic objects (combs, food bowls, heddle pulleys) and commercial products (beer, detergent, and postage stamps). Sometimes the elephant is depicted in isolation, other times it is part of a complex scene.

African interpretations of the elephant vary considerably. The Akan proverb cited above, for example, praises the invincibility of the beast, but suggests also the prominence of the chief--a frequent allusion in the expressive cultures of West Africa. Other African peoples focus on its longevity and stamina, its mental capacities--intelligence, memory, clairvoyance--or its social qualities--group cooperation and loyalty. The object bearing a representation of the elephant is often thought to be symbolically infused with the animal's attributes.

Although it has been over two hundred years since the Akan peoples, (of coastal and forest areas of southwest Ghana) have coexisted with the elephant, the symbolic image of the pachyderm continues to inform their visual and verbal arts. Representations of elephants on musical instruments, chiefly regalia, and goldweights celebrate the might of the beast and simultaneously praise the implied powers of chieftaincy. Often such images call forth sayings that likewise commemorate the chief and praise his preeminence.

The elephant may also serve as a literal and metaphorical foundation, as in the drum (centerspread) made by renowned carver, Osei Bonsu, in the 1930s, for an ntan musical group. As the principal drum of an Akan band, the drum is seen as female and known as the "mother of the group." It is richly embellished with proverbial images of animals--crossed crocodiles, hornbill and snake, and a horse and rider. The elephant itself carries the drum on its back and represents the ntan group which supports the music of the town

For the Bamana peoples of Mali, images of the elephant and other bush animals, appear in the masks and puppets of youth association masquerades that celebrate the prowess of the hunter and are danced at the beginning of the hunting season. Distinctive attributes (large ears, trunk, and tusks) of these brightly painted wooden masks identify the character as an elephant, and the masquerader's slow and ponderous movements reinforce the animal's identity for the audience.

Elephant as Material

The physical body of the elephant can also communicate some of the same messages as visual representations of the animal. The ivory, hide, hair, bone, and callus of the animal provide raw material for many objects, from the ceremonial to the utilitarian. These materials are likely to be used in a leadership context, for they often connote status and power. …