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.
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.
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.