The Early Modern World, C. 1300–1600

African Art

What are the Sapi saltcellars?

Sapi saltcellars, made of ivory, were a result of Portuguese trade relationships with artists along the coast of West Africa. The Portuguese commissioned luxury goods such as spoons, forks, decorative boxes, and saltcellars. At the time, salt was itself a luxury good that only the rich could afford, and an exotic, carved saltcellar was a symbol of wealth. Art historians have identified what they think are three individual Sapi carvers who produced much of the work. The styles of the saltcellars are a blend of African and Portuguese influence, mixing Christian imagery and European hunting scenes with royal iconography familiar within the Benin art historical tradition. In a way, the Sapi saltcellars are the first example of tourist art in Africa, as these were objects created with the intention of exporting them.


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