Understanding the form, materials, and meaning of two ritual figures: Conservation and curatorial collaboration for the analysis and treatment of the historic arts of Africa

Casey Mallinckrodt, Ashley Duhrkoop, and Dr. Ndubuisi (Endy) Ezeluomba


This presentation will focus on the results of research and technical analysis, and describe the conservation treatment of two objects as examples of a large suite of technical analyses underway through a three year project funded by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation: a 19th-20th century figure from the Idoma speaking communities in the Benue state of Nigeria and a twentieth century Adja Bocio figure collected in Togo.

The project goals are to generate in-depth material, cultural, and scholarly knowledge of the objects in the African collection at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts and contribute to scholarship on the historic arts of Africa at large. The project is jointly administered and carried out by a conservation and curatorial team with collaborative exchange a hallmark of our process. The project also supports partnerships with specialist consultants, students, and source community members.

The Idoma figure is a religious object used for the veneration of the water spirit Anjenu and is comprised of multiple materials and mixtures that include wood, paints, dyes, coatings, plant fibers, and mineral rich pastes, as well as imbedded and hidden materials. The Bocio is a religious Vodun object empowered by an accumulation of materials. Multiple analytic methods were used to develop holistic understandings of the figures including x-radiography and UV imaging, pXRF, XRD, FTIR and Raman spectroscopy, microscopy, and SEM-EDS. Collaboration with scientists at the Virginia Commonwealth University provided access to more refined analytic methods and professional expertise in interpreting results. Identification of plant materials was aided by consultation with botanists and ethnobotanists at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Belgium.

The knowledge and observations of curatorial partners informed the material investigations of the figures, while conservation discoveries about the materials and methods of manufacture informed scholarly investigations including curatorial interviews with members of the various Idoma speaking communities in central Nigeria including the Ortukpo, Otukpa, Igumale, and Igede, and with the collectors who acquired the Bocio in the field.

Changes in the perception and exhibition of historic arts of Africa may require reconstructing the histories and meanings of these objects that have been separated from their original context of manufacture and use. This is a complex process as objects may embody complex and secret cultural practices or they may have been altered to accommodate cultural shifts or market demands. This presentation addresses the central importance of identifying the materials and methods of manufacture of historic arts of Africa through the investigation and treatment of ritual figurative sculptures and presents the discoveries about the structure, embellishments, and surface treatments that have resulted from collaborative investigation.


2018 | Houston | Volume 25