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Considering Mlima’s Tusks

James Green

The action of Mlima’s Tale is driven by man’s obsession with ivory, and all human characters in the play are implicated in the illegal ivory trade. A character in the play expounds upon its desirable properties: "Do you know why ivory is so special? Because it’s soft, malleable, the carver can have a smooth conversation with the material and rarely does it argue or fight back." When looking upon Mlima’s tusks, he imagines their potential to be transformed by the skilled hands of a carver into astonishing works of art. To Mlima, his tusks were simply his teeth, his extended incisors. They helped him to dig, to lift, to knock down bushes, shrubs, or fields of neatly planted maize... He used them to break branches from trees so he could get at their leaves, to strip the bark from wood in order to reach the fresh, soft pulp beneath. On the occasions where he had to fight to defend himself or protect his herd, his tusks served as his weapons: both his spear and his shield, and were there to guard his vulnerable trunk when he charged.

The size and shape of an elephant’s tusks are inherited – a mixed blessing from his ancestors. As Mlima lies dying in the opening scene, he reflects upon his own tusks: "I hear my dear mother calling me handsome, but it was a WARNING that I’d come to understand as my tusks grew longer and more perfect than my brothers’ and sisters’." Big tusks mean more ivory, and over the centuries hunters have succeeded in wiping out these lineages, leaving Mlima as one of Kenya’s last great "tuskers." Like so much of the play, this detail is true to reality. Tsavo National Park, southeast of Nairobi, is home to some of the last remaining "tuskers," a term which refers to elephants with tusks weighing more than 100 lbs. on each side. Fewer than 20 of these elephants survive, and almost half of them live in Tsavo; an elephant named LU1 the largest of them all. Will Burrard-Lucas has recently documented these surviving few in an extraordinary series of black-and-white photographs published as the Land of Giants in support of the Tsavo Trust.

Man has prized ivory for its plastic qualities since the dawn of time: for its softness, smoothness, strength, and the variety of its creamy whites which take on depths of color as it ages and is passed over the centuries through human hands. The many gorgeous objects found in the tomb of the Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamun (r.1332–1323 BCE) include a "water dish" made from a large piece of ivory and two game boards carved from solid blocks of ivory, and also the headrest upon which the pharaoh was laid to rest, constructed from two pieces of ivory joined with four gold nails (Nicholson, 2009: 325). These items are testament to how deeply the material was valued. In keeping with playwright Lynn Nottage’s vision, we might also imagine the spirits of these ancient elephants as resting with the young pharaoh in his tomb. Other civilizations would follow the Egyptian example and make use of elephant ivory in the creation of rare and wonderful objects, often combining ivory with other valuable materials, like a masterpiece of Ancient Greece, the lost Athena Parthenos, made from gold and ivory.

In the mid-to-late nineteenth century, ivory from the African elephant began to be used on an industrial scale to meet the growing demand of the West’s burgeoning middle classes who all desired to have the things once reserved for pharaohs. Elephants were killed at an increasing rate as the century advanced, and populations further and further inland were targeted. Their tusks were transported to the coast along the very same routes which enslaved men and women had walked in the centuries before. These tusks were then shipped to Europe and America and made into everything from false teeth, piano keys and combs, to the handles for fish knives, and perfectly round and smooth billiard balls. Because of the popularity of ivory across the world and over the centuries, most encyclopaedic museums in America and Europe house many objects either made entirely from ivory, or with elements in ivory. The Yale University Art Gallery is no exception. A simple search for the term "ivory" in the collections database available on the museum’s website yields an arbitrary selection of objects which make use of this material.  

To linger too much over the ivory in museum collections is to go against the spirit of Mlima’s Tale, though, for it is the seductive properties of ivory, Nottage warns, which allow us to forget, or simply to turn away from the death of the elephant. "Mlima groans. The poacher chops the elephant’s face with the machete. Blood. Cries of agony. Silence." There is one artwork in the Yale University Art Gallery that does not allow the viewer this escape: "Ivory Hunters," a drawing in crayon, felt-tip pen and opaque watercolor by the Kenyan artist Kamante Gatura (1901–1985). 

"Ivory Hunters" by Kamante Gatura, ca. 1980. Yale University Art Gallery. Gift of Selden Rodman, B.A. 1931.

Known by his first name, Kamante’s life is extraordinarily well-documented for an African artist of the mid-twentieth century. This is because of his friendship with Baroness Karen Blixen who, at the age of twenty-seven, left Denmark and moved to Kenya to manage a four-thousand-acre coffee plantation, "at the foot of the Ngong Hills" where Kamante’s parents came to live when he was a young boy. Blixen writes extensively about Kamante in her memoir Out of Africa, first published in 1937, and later turned into the 1985 film of the same name. Over a period of more than a decade, beginning in 1962, the artist Peter Beard collected Kamante’s own stories, which were published in 1975 as Longing for Darkness: Kamante’s Tales from Out of Africa. The book includes Kamante’s memories of his time on the farm, and many drawings by him in his distinctive style.

The drawing conserved at the Gallery is a particularly vibrant example dating to the 1980s, by which time Kamante was living on Beard’s Kenyan farm, Hog Ranch and working as a full-time artist. In this drawing, made with streaks of crayon, the forms afterwards outlined in black felt-tip ink, the elephant lies splayed out diagonally, his massive rib cage exposed, his legs splayed, and his head twisted into the dust. To the right, the hunter stands with his bow, an arrow at his feet, and looks directly out of the picture at the viewer. The ivory tusk he holds, and the other on the ground before him, have been painted over with a layer of white enamel paint – used nowhere else in the work – which gives them a shine. The different surface texture also has the effect of making them distinct from the corpse of the elephant and the rest of the drawing, as if separated from the body the tusks now have a life of their own. Blood drips from where the tusks have been cut, and the same red color is used in the elephant’s eyes. In the background there is an acacia tree, and in the distance a line of hills. A tuskless elephant runs off out of the picture with its tail raised and its trunk in the air, perhaps fleeing from this scene of death. Two men set about preparing the carcass – the flesh, fat, offal, skin, and marrowbone will all be consumed. Nothing will go to waste. Surrounding the elephant are the simple tools of his death and dismemberment: a knife, an axe, and the arrow – no guns are involved. The drawing recalls a time – which by the 1980s was long in the past – when elephant hunting was done using simple weapons. Kamante was Kikuyu, and historically among the Kikuyu people an elephant hunt would have been a rare occurrence, and a mark of great honor for the hunters. Ivory was used for jewelry and as tokens of prestige, but not on the scale it was desired elsewhere in the world. Robin Brown notes in Blood Ivory how indigenous hunting practices in Africa did very little damage to the elephant population, and may have even been beneficial. Using traps and weapons such as those depicted in the drawing, hunters "took out immature, infirm or elderly animals, assisting the natural selection processes of the African ecosystem" (Brown, 2008:29). While brutal, in Kamante’s vision of the death of the elephant we see a nostalgic vision of the past.

Kamante lived during a period of enormous change. As the colony of Kenya was developed, conflict between indigenous fauna and mankind increased, and thousands of elephants were shot as part of a government policy of "game control" – a euphemism for mass slaughter. Captain A.T.A. Richie, Game Warden of Kenya between 1923 and 1949, notes how ‘elephants, their numbers, size, strength, destructive feeding habits and conservatively migratory mode of life, make them a prime preoccupation of all East African Game Wardens’ and he set about killing as many as he could (Hunter, 1952, xi). By the 1960s, rapid urbanization, the transformation of animal habitats into farmland, and the intensification of farming practices meant the ‘bitter clashes’ between elephant populations and man intensified, with elephant populations suffering. Between 1964­–1965, Peter Beard worked in the Tsavo East National Park and documented the deaths of over 35,000 elephants. Poaching of recent years, such as that described in Mlima’s Tale, is a tragic afterword to the devastation already wreaked on elephant populations during the late nineteenth and twentieth century.

Nottage permits the audience no catharsis at the end of this tragedy; there is no redemption for Mlima’s death. Instead, Mlima’s ghost – and also the ghosts of his ancestors who are named in a praise song – are left to haunt the stage even after the action of the play has ended, while his earthly remains, his astonishing tusks which made him a living legend, decorate the foyer of a penthouse in China. No one is to blame for Mlima’s death; everyone is to blame. By granting him dignity and a voice, Mlima speaks for the generations of elephants who have been killed, and who continue to be killed for their tusks.


Beard, Peter, Isak Dinesen, and Kamante Gatura. 1975. Longing for Darkness: Kamante's tales from Out of Africa. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Blixen, Karen. 1937. Out of Africa. London: Putnam.
Brown, Robin. 2008. Blood Ivory: The Massacre of the African Elephant. Stroud, Gloucestershire: History Press.
Burrard-Lucas, Will. 2019. Land of Giants. Burrard-Lucas Books.
Hunter, John A. 1952. Hunter. New York: Popular Library.
Nicholson, Paul T., and Ian Shaw. 2009. Ancient Egyptian materials and technology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

With special thanks to Alyssa Pagan Hagearty, New Haven Promise Intern, for her thorough and proactive research assistance.

James Green is the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Assistant Curator of African Art at Yale University Art Gallery. He was born in Johannesburg. He received a B.A. from Keble College, University of Oxford, and an M.A. from the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London, and he completed his PH.D. in 2017 at the University of East Anglia. His dissertation focused on the art of the Teke peoples of West Central Africa from 1880 to 1920 and involved fieldwork at Mbe, Republic of the Congo. In 2013 he cocurated the exhibition Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Community Museum. While a fellow and research associate in the Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he contributed to the 2015–16 exhibition Kongo: Power and Majesty. At Yale, James ensures that the Gallery’s important collection of African art is a vibrant and engaging resource for all visitors. His dual interest in collaborating with Yale students and faculty and cultivating partnerships with museums and universities in Africa helps to illuminate Africa’s rich art traditions and establish tangible links with contemporary art practices.


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