The Art of African Ivory
28 April 2018–3 August 2020
Grey Gallery
Curated by Dr Shannen Hill, Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art

Africans have traded raw and carved ivory for centuries. Its lustrous sheen makes it desirable, as does the brute majesty of its source: Africa is home to the world’s largest elephants. Across continents, ivory objects are used in rituals—rites of prestige and pageantry rolled into one. Desired by a range of bodies—political, social, medicinal, religious—ivory sparks discussion of history and debates about ecological and wild-life preservation.

This exhibition showcases works donated by Justin and Elisabeth Lang. Visitors will discover how Africans have used ivory to teach morality, convey social standing, heal wounds, safeguard communities and commercially profit.


Dr Shannen Hill is Research Associate at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art and President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association. She is author of Biko’s Ghost: The Iconography of Black Consciousness (2015) and a former Fellow of the J. Paul Getty Foundation and the Smithsonian Institution.

Yoruba Artist, Nigeria, Iroke Ifa (Divination Tapper), ivory. Gift of Justin and Elisabeth Lang, 1984 (M84-435) Photo: Bernard Clark

Igbo Artist, Nigeria, “Spirit Elephant” Headdress (Ogbodo Enyi), 20th century, wood and pigment. Gift of Justin and Elisabeth Lang, 1984 (M84-168)

“Today, museums worldwide are home to thousands of ivory objects carved by artists from nearly every continent. These objects are multiple things at once. They are works of art, whether exquisitely carved or roughly hewn, and they are lessons in history both local and global.”

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