41st Annual Meeting – Objects Session, May 31, “Intersecting Conservation Approaches to Ethnographic and Contemporary Art: Ephemeral Art at the National Museum of African Art” by Stephanie E. Hornbeck

In this paper, Stephanie discusses similarities between conserving ethnographic and contemporary works of art. She includes previous discussions about the two types of conservation and the variety of viewpoints associated with them, demonstrated, visually, through case studies of treatments of both traditional and contemporary art.
Stephanie briefly discussed her training, which began at the Guggenheim before working at more focused ethnographic collections. She has worked for several years for the National Museum of African Art (NMAA). This museum originally housed just traditional arts, but, in the 1990’s, also began collecting contemporary art. They now have a collection of over 600 contemporary works of art, and I believe she said this is the largest collection of contemporary African art in the United States (or the world?). She and her colleagues Steve Mellor and Dana Moffett have found that these contemporary works, while using materials common to non-African contemporary art, also draw upon materials from traditional African arts.
Both traditional arts and contemporary art are often composed of ephemeral material (sometimes by design, sometimes not) – composite media, repurposed materials, and inherently fragile materials. Conservation is often directly opposed to ephemeral art. While Stephanie proposed that this statement has been addressed many times previously, there are as many different opinions on how to deal with contemporary art and ephemeral materials. The opinions posed in this paper are Stephanie’s own.
Stephanie presented a number of case studies to discuss their approach to ephemeral materials as well as to highlight similarities between traditional and contemporary art. The first examples were of a traditional, wooden artifact by Olówè of Isè, and a contemporary ceramic piece, Untitled 1, by Magdelene Odundo, in 1994. In the former, there was a darkening of the surface of the bowl, which conservators thought might be a resin applied later in its life and might be inappropriate to the artifact. Analysis showed that the dark material was in fact a gum-carbohydrate mixture – one that could have been historic. The artist, Olówè, died in 1938, however, and could not be interviewed about it.
Magdelene Odundo’s Untitled 1 is a beautiful, pristine ceramic vessel with a rich, earthy-red and smooth surface. What soon became apparent, were areas of lime within the clay body that would swell and cause the ceramic above to pop off, resulting in a pit with a white dot in the middle (the lime). [This is exactly what occurs in pottery from Southwest United States.] These areas mar the pristine surface intended by the artist. In this case, as opposed to the wooden figurine, the artist could be interviewed. Popping from lime inclusions can be avoided by different firing conditions and temperatures, but with these different techniques the shape and color of her pieces would change. This was unacceptable to the artist, who decided to accept the consequences of the lime popping in exchange for the color and shape she desired in her works.
In documentation, there are surveys for living artists: Maters in Media Art (Tate Modern), the Guggenheim Museum’s Variable Media Approach, and those available through INCAA. In these surveys, there is an anthropological aspect. For instance, inherent vice (present in both traditional and contemporary arts) can be intentional – or not. In Ghada Amer’s Hunger, from the “Earth Matters” exhibit currently on display until January 2014, “HUNGER” is spelled out on using seeds and plants in the grounds of the NMAA. The letters will change with different plants in different seasons, and will naturally decay.
Artist-Conservator interactions are possible perhaps more easily with contemporary pieces, though the inherent vice can be the same. In Henreique Oliveira’s Bololo from 1991 was destroyed after the exhibit (it was a huge piece(s) of brazilwood installed to appear as if it were growing out of a wall, filling the gallery in serpentine forms). Willem Boshoff’s Writing in Sand from 2005 consisted of white sand spread over the floor with black sand letters forming a text. The public was able to touch the piece, and the artist liked that the public could damage it; still, the meaning of the piece was intent on its words, so they had to be restored. This occurred about once/week, and by the end of the exhibit, the sand was mostly gray.
In the conservation of ethnographic objects, treatments are often conservative, though problems many be similar to those encountered in contemporary works. Berni Seale’s (Searle?) To Hold in the Palm of the Hand is a 2006 installation, and incorporated powdered henna on its surface. Stephanie had to replace this henna (after finding an appropriate source) while on display. Conversely, Powdered pigment would not be replaced on a traditional object, such as a Zulu hat that also had a powdery, red pigmented surface.
Regarding artist intent and conservation treatment, sometimes contemporary materials require more immediate conservation. 1997’s amendment to AIC’s Code of Ethics/Guidelines for Practice were amended with Commentary 23, paragraph D, to provide rationale for greater intervention. Stephanie Hornbeck, however, fells the commentary is too vague and broad, and can be contrary to conservation principles. (Louise Nevelson’s Dreamhouse XLIII, 1993, at the Miami Art Museum is a dilemma for Stephanie.) For contemporary art, how far into the past and future do invasive treatments, such as repainting, apply?
The Getty has a publication entitled The Object in Transition, which is available online for the public and discusses specific examples. Pretty much, pieces must be evaluated on a case by case basis, but the outcomes are truly variable. There is a dilemma between accepted standards and “case by case” bases for treatment, and this is a really interesting point that I think conservators should consider more deeply.
The VARA act came into being in 1990. This discusses copyright law and ownership. VARA 106 A (c) (2) is an important paragraph. In Europe, the future of a given piece is guided by the artist; in the United States, it is guided by the owner. This has a great influence on the direction for conservation in the two continents.

Q&A: there was an interesting discussion about when treatments on ethnographic collections became more restrained. Sanchita Balachandran offered an interesting insight, stating that some of that restraint occurred when museums changed from being “owners” of the collections to “stewards” of the collections.