As far as anyone working there knows, Seattle Art Museum has never before brought out the carved ivory elephant tusk that now stands upright, gleaming in its glass case in a small, out-of-the-way gallery on the fourth floor.
The tusk is 18 inches long, in shades of buttered white toast, and carved on it in a spiral is a line of men, women, and babies moving upward around the tusk. They are being marched into slavery at gunpoint.
Each figure is tiny but clear. The carver went into painstaking detail so we can make out who is hungry by his ribs, feel the texture of each head of hair, hear the cough issuing from the man bent over for inspection.
The slaves are African, and so are at least some, if not all, of the guards.
At the top of the spiral, the line culminates in a single man seated with his body folded, head in hands, in grief.
As the label explains, this was a late-19th-century tourist souvenir. These souvenirs were made by African carvers to decorate the homes of wealthy Europeans.
This tusk is in a small show timidly titled Emblems of Encounter: Europe and Africa Over 500 Years, "encounter" being a slight word for a half-millennium of culture shock, mutual awe, exploitation, slavery, murder, and mass dismemberment.
SAM European curator Chiyo Ishikawa assembled Emblems—"gingerly," she said, adding it isn't thought-out enough to be a full exhibition, just a sort of dredge—with input from African curator Pam McClusky. The museum went through a yearlong training with the City of Seattle's Race and Social Justice Initiative, and Ishikawa asked one of that program's facilitators to help with the labels.
In 2012, the Dallas Museum of Art put on display a similar tusk—also for the first time. Museums are creaking open the doors on the colonial legacies hiding in their basements, in part in response to domestic decolonizing movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter.
Museums often store things that are too painful, messy, or inconclusive to fit into the accepted stories told in galleries. But stories change, and objects emerge like ghosts coming through the walls.
I appreciate a 21st-century American museum openly scrambling for a better view of what it doesn't know. Maybe next time these materials come out, after this dry run, we will see a less nervous SAM, one willing to raise its voice above a whisper and ask provocative questions directly in public events, labels, and titles. Without discussion, the blatantly racist 18th-century English figurines in Emblems, for instance, are just painful and stupid.
The most interesting creations in Emblems (and most of the pieces, period) came out of Africa. An early-20th-century Congolese wooden power figure wearing a tuxedo jacket sits with a European rifle on his lap. He embodies the confounding, conflicting realities of a besieged Congo. The figure's protective power comes from the herb paste coating his shoulders. Yet he is redundantly armed and in the formal dress of a European overlord, someone from whom protection is needed. He is both sides of a colonial coin.
From the divided, semi-abolitionist 19th century, there's a needlework sampler—also displayed for the first time at SAM—hanging quietly in a frame, hand-sewn by a 10-year-old girl receiving instruction at a missionary outpost in Sierra Leone.
In letters that lean slightly, as if she's practicing for dear life, the girl signs her name as "Liberated African Charlotte Turner." Little is known about her. Most likely she was captured by enslavers, dragged to the Atlantic Coast, put on a ship later intercepted by British anti-slavers, and deposited with missionaries near the coast, far from the home where she couldn't return for fear of being enslaved again. The missionaries got funding by selling naming rights to the girls, who made the samplers to be sent back to European sponsors.
And now that the tusk is out, what does it bring with it?
Its scene is universally horrible. The question is whether the souvenir brought pain with it into the European household, or whether the sight of Africans enslaving Africans was an easy justification for dismissing such sordidness as merely foreign.
What I want to know more about is the carver. The best reason for this tusk to be in the gallery is that he recorded these scenes as eyewitness testimony. Actual slave marches happened on the Loango Coast, where he was working. The agony of the figure at the top of the tusk makes it impossible for me to believe that this was just a job.
I recommend turning around and around the glass case to follow the spiraling march. This is the best way to see every gesture and hear every tone of the carver's voice. It's okay if you get light-headed. You can't get your mind around this.