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The Importance of the Superficial: Surfaces of Wooden Sculpture from Africa

As part of my work preparing for the reinstallation of the African galleries, I recently finished dusting the objects which are currently on view.  Removing accumulated dust from artworks is essential, and not just because it looks bad.  With time, dust can bond with, and encourage the deterioration of the surface of an artwork.

Dusting provided an opportunity to become acquainted with the wide range of surfaces that can be found on wooden sculpture from Africa. Given all the information one can get from these surfaces, this part of the project has been a visual and art historical education.

Under the dust, the surface observed can be one that the artist created.  Yoruba sculptor Lamidi O. Fakeye, for example, highlighted the wood itself by leaving the surface of his mounted horseman unpainted and unvarnished.

Detail of Mounted Horseman by Lamidi O. Fakeye, which features a bare wooden surface.

This is just one of a wide variety of possible surface finishes the artist could have chosen.  In contrast, this 20th century helmet mask for Bonu Amuen masker features a thick, slightly textured paint layer.

Detail of the painted surface of a 20th century helmet for Bonu Amuen masker.

The forehead of the Deangle mask is covered with layers of ritually applied materials.

For many works, however, the observed surface is the result of the combination of the artist’s activity and the use of the object after it was created.  Substances are often applied to painted wooden sculpture in Africa, however the material used and the reason for its application varies with the culture of origin of the piece.  Because of this variety, materials on the surface of African sculpture can provide information that is valuable for understanding the ways in which people have interacted with it.

The forehead of this face mask for Deangle masker, for example, shows a rough texture that is distinct from the smooth surfaces elsewhere on the mask.  This texture is the result of the application of many different sacrificial materials as an important part of its use in circumcision rituals.

This crocodile helmet mask made by the Nuna people of Burkina Faso is covered on the top of the head with chicken feathers and other remnants of sacrificial offerings.

Feathers and other ritual substances found on the Nuna crocodile helmet mask)

A third, key factor that contributes to the observed surface is the condition of the original and applied materials after aging. An example of a common condition than can develop with time is fatty acid bloom which results from the polymorphic transformation of fats or waxes. This condition is seen on this Tusian helmet mask.

Grey bloom on the Tusian helmet mask.

Analysis of the bloom can determine its chemical composition in order to help identify the applied material.  The kind of materials applied to the surface can be diagnostic for the country or culture of origin for unknown works.

This education has already informed my activity in the next part of the redesign project–assessing the condition of artworks as part of the collection survey.

Filed under: African Art, Conservation

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