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Re: [African_Arts] Bamana Chiwara wood surface treatment

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  • Lee Rubinstein
    The relationship between objects current appearances and their previous indigenous appearances -- as well as the vagaries of diverse and malleable aesthetic
    Message 1 of 2 , Jul 14, 2008
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      The relationship between objects' current appearances and their previous indigenous appearances -- as well as the vagaries of diverse and malleable aesthetic and theoretical preferences affecting conservation and presentation -- indicate interesting and persistent questions in the realm of appreciation of arts of Africa (and elsewhere).  Objects classified as canonical examples of African traditional art in the West which have been in the public eye for the better part of a century are as suspect as more recent examples.  It is often difficult to determine the manipulations which have occurred to enact a correspondence of African objects either with their presumed earlier appearances in situ and/or the aesthetic preferences of Western audiences and how these manipulations have helped to formulate ideas and perceptions of what constitutes authenticity.  

      Perhaps one reasonable compromise in handling the desire to restore a cleaned object to its "ritual" appearance is to determine through careful study what substances were likely originally applied and subsequently removed and to explore the possibility of re-application.  One excellent article that explores some of the worthwhile considerations relevant to the question raised is Stephen Mellor's "THE EXHIBITION AND CONSERVATION OF AFRICAN OBJECTS: CONSIDERING THE NONTANGIBLE" (http://aic.stanford.edu/jaic/articles/jaic31-01-002.html).

      Personally, I perceive here an essentially irreconcilable paradox in the question raised.  While it may be possible to "restore" the figure in question to resemble its presumed pre-cleaned appearance, doing so still constitutes a simulation, an application or treatment which may, subjectively speaking, "enhance" the object's appearance to correspond with a personal preference but which cannot reconstitute the authenticity of the object's  appearance.  One can certainly reproduce -- even masterfully, as is often done when and where resources and skills are available -- the desired state and appearance of objects but one cannot replicate the aspects of ritual, use and time that produced the external elements which have been removed; and the value and impact of such actions must be considered and documented.  When such actions are indeed taken, it is appropriate to indicate these actions clearly so as not to obscure the nature and origins of the observable elements, their contexts of production (or simulation) so as not to create mistaken assumptions regarding what these elements suggest in terms of age, usage, authenticity, etc.

      Ultimately, the decision and methods selected are personal and/or institutional.   A passage which illuminates an instance of the latter appears in a 1982 article by Susan Vogel which describes some of the preparations made for the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art:

      "By case and by area, the objects were brought into the special conservation lab established for work on the Rockefeller Wing.  Each object was examined and cleaned if necessary, old repairs were sometimes removed or improved, and new ones were sometimes made.

      "Some interesting discoveries were made in the lab.  One of our large Bamana figures (a standing male) was found to have restored arms, which were removed to reveal that their original angle had been rather different from that of the restoration... A Luba 'figure of a hunchback'... was discovered to have been carved across the grain (which runs horizontally).  A close look at the surface of the back revealed slight differences in color and texture that suggest this figure had not been carved as a hunchback but was cut off a larger composition, perhaps a figure and animal group that included a bowl.  Like many objects from the Western Sudan, ours had acquired a fine grey film over much of their surface.  Catherine Sease, head of the lab, made tests to confirm that this was caused by oxidation of the waxes they had on the surface.  The original appearance of the objects was restored by reforming the waxes manually and with solvents."  (pp. 38-40 in Susan Vogel, "Bringing African Art to the Metropolitan Museum," African Arts, Volume XV, Number 2 (February, 1982), pp. 38-45.)

      Another instance of restoration and the diverse approaches and interpretations of such restorations in the same collection (the Metropolitan) is the Wunderman Dogon wooden horse and rider which appears in Kate Ezra's Art of the Dogon (New York:  The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  1988)  as Figure 6 (pp. 40-41 and cover). As noted in the explicatory text, "This figure's left arm below the elbow and part of the rein, visible in earlier photographs, were found to be a modern restoration and have recently been removed."  (p. 40).  

      More recently [June, 2006], a discussion pertaining to the Dogon "Autel" offered as part of Sotheby's auction PF6024 as Lot 7 indicated the sensitivity to the clear revelation of manipulated objects, suggesting that one person's restoration can be viewed as another's deception...


      On Jul 12, 2008, at 4:32 AM, Nieuwenhuysen wrote:

      Dear all,
      Bamana /Bambara elegant horizontal mythical antelope headdresses /
      masks from Mali are well known and appreciated. 
      They belong to the bigger family of masks known by most amateurs as
      Chiwara / Tjiwara.
      One in my habitat has been treated / cleaned, so that most of the dark
      brown surface layer is removed and the light colored wood has become
      This is unfortunate, because the original brown layer was more
      authentic and more attractive / beautiful than the light colored wood.
      Also when you touch the object, it does not feel nice.

      So the question is: 
      How to restore this object more or less to its original state or how
      to make it at least more attractive?
      Many different methods have been used and are still used to make
      wooden statues more attractive.
      To obtain a very dark brown surface, it can even be burned.
      Of course we can use some brown paste like shoeshine, but there are
      probably better approaches.
      Looking forward to read your suggestion.

      A photo of the problem object is posted in the photo group named
      http://ph.groups. yahoo.com/ group/African_ Arts/photos/ view/2aa4? b=1&o=2

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