Peter MARKChercheur invité

Mars - Juin 2019

Peter Mark est ‘chercheur invité’ à l’INHA dans le cadre du programme: “Vestiges, indices, paradigmes: lieux et temps des objets d’Afrique.” (mars-juin 2019)

Trained as both an art historian and an historian, Peter Marks has devoted his career to developing a methodology for understanding and analyzing African material culture in its historical context. The iconographic analysis of pre-colonial art is possible only in the context of its production and use. As historian, he privileges local historical knowledge, transmitted through oral traditions; where available, the earliest contemporary written documentation (hopefully) provides critical chronological data and other confirmation for non-written sources.

His two historical studies of the Casamance (southern Senegal) use written documents, oral traditions, and local rituals to establish the cultural context (and a timeline) for the historicized study of masking traditions (the horned ejumbi initiation mask). In Portuguese Style, he reconstructs the history of pre-colonia vernacular architecture in West Africa (Upper Guinea and Mali).

More recently, he has devoted his attention to the study of the luso-African ivory carvings from 16th and 17th century Upper Guinea, their provenance, chronology, and often complex symbolism. All of these elements require familiarity with local cultures and with the commercial networks that tied Guinea Coast societies to the Portuguese world-wide trading networks of the16th and 17th centuries. He seeks a deeper knowledge of the iconography of these salt cellars, by approaching the “visual semantics” that underlie and that unify the symbolism of these ivories.



  • The Forgotten Diaspora: Jewish Communities in West Africa and the Creation of the Atlantic World.  Co-authored with José da Silva Horta. Cambridge University Press. 2011, 2013.
  • Portuguese’ Style and Luso-African Identity; precolonial Senegambia, sixteenth to nineteenth century. Indiana University Press, 2002.
  • The Wild Bull and the Sacred Forest: Form, Meaning, and Change in Senegambian Initiation Masks. Cambridge University Press. N.Y. 1992; reissued in paperback, 2012.
  • A Cultural, Economic, and Religious History of the Basse Casamance since 1500.
  •  Frobenius-Institut & Steiner Verlag. Studien zur Kulturkunde, 78; Stuttgart, 1985.
  • Africans in European Eyes: The Portrayal of Black Africans in 14th and 15th Century Europe.
  • Syracuse University. The Maxwell School, Foreign & Comparative Studies, xvi, 1974.

Selected Recent Articles

  • Ransoming, Collateral, and Protective Captivity on the Upper Guinea Coast before 1650; Colonial Continuities, Contemporary Echoes,” Working Papers of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology (in press). 
  • “’Free, unfree, captive, slave;’ António de Saldanha, a late sixteenth-century captive in Marrakesh.” In Mario Klarer, ed. Piracy and Captivity in the Early Modern Mediterranean. New York: Routledge, 2018.
  • “Islam, religions locales d’Afrique occidentale et traditions des masques, »in Trésors de l’Islam en   Afrique de Tombouctou à Zanzibar, Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris, 2017, pp.14-18.
  • “’First the documents, then the art;’” objects as historical sources for the pre-colonial history of the Upper Guinea Coast,” in K. Werthmann and Silke Stickrodt, eds., Written and Material Sources for the Pre-Colonial History of Coastal West Africa. University of Leipzig, 2016 (published March 20, 2016 ), pp. 95-100.
  • “Arts of Senegambia.” In Oxford Bibliographies in Art History. ed. Thomas DaCosta Kaufmann. New York: Oxford University Press, online.
  • “’Bini, Vidi, Vici’; On the misuse of ‘Style’ in African Art History.” History in Africa, 2015.
  • “L'image du global au 16e siècle: la représentation en ivoire du commerce en Afrique de l'Ouest.” catalog essay for exhibition at Musée d’Angoulême, May 2015.
  • “Market networks and warfare: a comparison of the 17th century blade weapons trade and the 19th century firearms trade in Casamance,” Co-author, with José da Silva Horta, in Jacqueline Knörr and Christoph Kohl, eds., The Upper Guinea Coast in Transnational Perspective. Berghahn Books and Max-Planck-Institut, Halle, 2015.
  • “African meanings and European-African Discource; Iconography and semantics in seventeenth century salt cellars from Serra Leoa.” in Religion and Cross-Cultural Trade in World History, 1000-1900, edited by Cátia Antunes, Leor Halevi, and Francesca Trivellato. Oxford University Press, 2014.
  • « Un modèle sénégambien de la construction identitaire: la contribution sépharade du XVIIe siècle, » Co-author with José da Silva Horta, in Guy Saupin, ed.,  L’impact du monde atlantique sur les  Anciens Mondes  africain et européen du XVe au XIXe siècle, Presses Universitaires de Rennes.
  • “On the misattribution of the Luso-African ivories: why art historical scholarship must be based on a critical interpretation of historical documents,” in As Artes Decorativas e a Expansão Portuguesa: Imaginário e Viagem, Actas do II Colóquio de Artes Decorativas. Lisboa. Fundação Ricardo do Espírito Santo Silva / Centro Científico e Cultural de Macau. 2010.
  • "Towards a Reassessment of the Dating and the geographical Origins of the Luso-African Ivories: fifteenth - seventeenth Century," History in Africa, 2007.

Projet de Recherche

Peter Marks' project articulates a methodology for studying the production and interpreting the socially contextualized meaning of a group of early West African artifacts: the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century carved ivories from the Upper Guinea Coast (northwest Sierra Leone and coastal Guinée). This interdisciplinary approach combines history and history of art. By combining historical analysis of Portuguese narratives and more recently-collected oral sources, with art historical analysis of the objects themselves, he seeks to articulate a methodology for dating, for establishing provenance, and for interpreting the ivories. This method will, he believes, be broadly applicable to the study of pre-colonial “art” in other regions of Africa for which early written documentation exists.

Since 2006 he has studied a group of carved ivory vessels, commonly referred to as ‘Luso-African salt cellars.’ These elaborately decorated containers, sculpted in ‘Serra Leoa’, depict human figures, including both local rulers and captives.

His analysis of the imagery of these salt cellars focuses on three areas. First, how does the artist depict African figures of distinctly different social status, ranging from members of the elite to subordinate characters (who, presumably, represent youth or those in servitude)? Second, he focuses on differential depiction of status associated with gender. Indicators of status include clothing, accoutrements, weapons, posture or physical position, and more abstract symbolism such as the association of an imperial ruler with an elephant. Finally, he will look at ivory carvers’ depiction of the act of reading.

The salt cellars provide information about the roles of women in “Sape” society. Portuguese written sources focus on men. The ivories, by contrast, depict both men and women. In these images, clothing connotes social status. In 17th-century Upper Guinea, wealthy trading women, signares, often wore imported European clothes. Depicted on the ivories, wealthy women wear patterned textiles, whereas naked women are most likely of low society status, almost certainly servants or slaves.

These ivories were carved by ‘Sape’ artists, ancestors of the Temne, Bulom, Baga, Nalu, and Landuman peoples. One of the salt cellars, now in Berlin, depicts two well-dressed men holding books. It is conceivable that the Sape artist may have been depicting individuals whose lifecourse took them from being Sape royalty, to asylum-seekers among the Portuguese, to free (and literate) local rulers. Brazilian historian Thiago Mota has recently demonstrated that another ivory, also in Berlin, depicts Muslim scholars reading from wooden tablets.  Together, these ivories provide a local perspective on literacy.