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Working to Define and Care for African Art at the IMA

This is the first post in a monthly series about my work on the African Art collection.  I came to the IMA in October to complete a nine-month fellowship that will serve as the final requirement for my master’s degree in art conservation from New York University’s Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts.

My first weeks at the museum have been filled with introductions.  In addition to meeting new coworkers, there were plenty of new places to get to know as part of the job.  Work-related travel has included a day trip to the Miller House in Columbus, Indiana to examine furniture in storage, condition checking the Mary Miss installation FLOW: Can You See The River? in 100 Acres, and a behind-the-scenes tour of the historic Oldfields-Lilly House and Gardens.

My introduction to the museum’s collection of African Art, however, is proving to be the most complicated. One of my main responsibilities at the IMA is to help prepare that collection for reinstallation early next year. This will involve months of surveying, testing and treating objects in that collection, as well as consulting on matters of storage and display. To begin to tackle this project, I wanted to assemble a list of the objects in the IMA’s collection of African Art, in order to ensure that my survey is thorough.

That practical, seemingly simple, request led me straight into questions of how African Art is defined at the IMA. If the answer seems apparent–that African Art is defined as art that comes from Africa–then consider the following example. The IMA owns two works by the living artist El Anatsui, who was born in Ghana and currently works in Nigeria. One work, Sacred Comb, is on display in the Eiteljorg suite of African Art. However, the other piece, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is displayed in the museum’s Contemporary Art galleries.

Which artwork by El Anatsui is classified as African Art at the IMA?

Because these two curatorial departments use different criteria to define their collections (geography vs. time period), both can claim either work.  Furthermore, the IMA’s department of Textiles and Fashion Arts uses still different parameters for defining their collection–those of medium and use.  As a work that references traditional West African strip-woven textiles, Duvor (Communal Cloth) is actually catalogued as part of the Textiles and Fashion Arts collection.

Does it matter for the objects that the IMA holds Egungun masker’s garments in both Textiles and Fashion Arts and in African Art?  Or that wooden masks, which are also used as part of the Egungun masquerade, are only held in the African Art collection and not associated with Textiles and Fashion Arts?

The context of the collection certainly shapes how the objects are discussed in wall texts and displayed in the galleries, with different emphasis on the aesthetic or functional qualities of the works.

During my internship, only works held in the collection of African Art will be surveyed.  Therefore, these African pieces will receive different treatment than those in other collections. For example, as a first step in the reinstallation, pre-program intern Nicole Peters, and I have been conducting x-ray fluorescence testing (XRF) on objects in the African galleries.

IMA intern Nicole Peters and IMA fellow Kristen Adsit conduct XRF testing of a face mask from the We culture in the Eiteljorg suite of African Art.

This analytical method reveals the elemental composition of the surface tested. We have been using it to look for traces of inorganic pesticides, which may have been applied historically to objects in the African collection, including remnants of toxic heavy metal compounds. Though African works held in the Textiles and Fashion Arts collections may also have been treated with these compounds, they are not included in this survey and will not be tested at this time.

Classifications can also help identify historical treatment of an object, since works in the same collection are likely to share a certain amount of history.  In contrast to the African and Textiles collections, it is unlikely that contemporary works by African artists would have been treated with heavy metal pesticides, as they have been made after such compounds have been widely replaced with organic ones.

The IMA is among many major art museums grappling with these issues.  Far from theoretical, how collections are defined at an institution raises practical questions that must be addressed thoughtfully as part of our daily work.

Filed under: Art, Conservation, The Collection

One Response to “Working to Define and Care for African Art at the IMA”

  • avatar

    I find the topic of how we define and categorize things facinating.

    These same issues hold true for librarians when sorting materials. In fact I have had several friends who have gotten dual degrees in art and library science in order to pursue a career in museums.

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