Beyond the Surface: Where Cultural Contexts and Scientific Analyses Meet in Museum Conservation of West African Power Association Helmet Masks

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How should museum conservators balance respect for objects created within secrecy contexts with concern for technical understanding and preservation? As described in this article, West African power association leaders draw on guarded knowledge to construct masks and other objects from a variety of animal, vegetal, and mineral matter. The works feature accumulations of diverse materials but often enter museum collections with scant or inaccurate records of the specific matter used in the objects' making. Conservators charged with the objects' care confront contradictions stemming from a professional commitment to identify materials intended to remain unknown and to conserve objects never designed to endure in perpetuity as finished forms. In this study, we identify and respond to North American museum conservators' and collections staff's desire for culturally informed guidelines for handling West African power association objects. We combine conservation-based scientific research with art-historical field and archival research to explore possibilities for studying the materially and culturally sensitive objects. We specifically focus on x-radiography and plant fiber identifications of two West African power association helmet masks presently in a museum collection as a case study for ethical decision making during conservation treatments.

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... They have solicited feedback from members of living communities and secret societies who venerate these objects, devised minimally invasive approaches to examining helmet masks, and carried out treatments while expressing ethical values of humility and respect. 7 Yet queries about competing values remain. Tom, who was tasked with examining the helmet mask and extracting a small sample for analysis, commented on cultural and ethical tensions in the process of studying and preserving non-Western ritual objects. ...
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This article explores the complex process of sustaining the lives of art objects and considers ways in which conservation efforts in art museums parallel cultural humility cultivation among health care professionals. Conservators and scientists at the Art Institute of Chicago grapple with a number of ethical questions that emerge when preserving and caring for objects with complicated histories and entangled networks of stakeholders. What follows is an examination of these issues in relation to objects in the Art Institute's collection and the larger histories of art museums and medicine.
Mapping Senufo: Art, Evidence, and the Production of Knowledge – an in-progress, collaborative, born-digital publication – will offer a model for joining theories about the construction of identities and the politics of knowledge production with research and publication practice. In this article, we examine how computational methods have led us to reframe research questions, reevaluate sources, and reimagine the form of a digital monograph. We also demonstrate how our use of digital technologies, attention to iteration, and collaborative mode of working have generated fresh insights into a corpus of arts identified as Senufo, the nature of evidence for art-historical research, and digital publication. We posit that the form of a digital publication itself can bring processes of knowledge construction to the fore and unsettle expectations of a tidy, authoritative narrative.
Multiple analytical techniques were used to characterize materials from the surfaces of two African sculptures in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago: a Bamana power object (boli), and a Yoruba wooden sculpture of a female figure. Surface accretions on objects such as these have received relatively little scientific attention to elucidate their composition and function, in part because they are made with complex mixtures of natural materials, which are often unfamiliar and poorly represented in the scientific literature on artists' materials. For this reason, a complement of techniques including Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy and pyrolysis gas chromatography mass spectrometry were applied, along with shotgun proteomics to better understand the nature and biological origin, down to the species level, of the proteinaceous materials. The results highlighted the presence of diverse materials including plant resins, oils, polysaccharides, and inorganic (clay or earth) compounds. In particular, mass spectrometry-based proteomics provided new insights on proteinaceous components, allowing us to identify the presence of sacrificial blood, and more specifically, blood from chicken, goat, sheep and dog. This new scientific evidence supports and supplements knowledge derived from curatorial and field work studies, and opens new doors to understanding the objects' significance and history of use.
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La statuaire dogon (Mali) comporte de nombreuses statuettes en bois recouvertes d'une patine sacrificielle épaisse. Si cette patine a été décrite par les études ethnologiques du XXe siècle comme un mélange de sang d'animaux sacrifiés et de bouillie de mil, aucune étude physico-chimique n'a jamais été publiée sur le sujet. Notre travail porte sur treize statuettes anthropomorphes issues des collections du musée du quai Branly. Grâce à la combinaison de la microscopie électronique à balayage couplée à l'analyse élémentaire et de la microspectroscopie infrarouge, il a été possible d'identifier différentes familles de produits dans ces patines qui se présentent comme un mélange complexe de matière minérale et organique. Dans tous les cas nous avons montré la présence de protéines et éventuellement d'amidon, mais plusieurs patines contiennent aussi des lipides et une grande quantité de matière minérale. Il semble exister plusieurs recettes de patines, ce qui remet en cause l'idée selon laquelle toutes les patines de statues dogon sont faites uniquement de sang et de bouillie de mil.
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L’acquisition récente par le musée du quai Branly d’une des plus anciennes statues en bois d’Afrique et ce grâce au mécénat d’Axa, nous a incité à étudier cette pièce majestueuse et unique au monde, afin de mieux la comprendre et de la situer dans son contexte historique. Datée par le radiocarbone entre le Xè et le XIè siècle, cette sculpture d’une taille exceptionnelle est originaire de la région de la falaise de Bandiagara à l’Ouest du pays Dogon (Mali). Acquise à Paris en 1969 auprès d’un marchand malien, elle a d’abord été exportée aux Etats-Unis puis a figuré dans de nombreuses expositions dans le monde, avant son rachat par le musée du quai Branly auprès d’un marchand d’art africain parisien. Des analyses de laboratoire ont été entreprises afin d’appréhender la technique de fabrication de cette effigie djennenké : examen radiographique, analyse xylologique et analyse physicochimique de la patine sacrificielle dont elle est enduite. L’utilisation d’un bois précieux, dont l’essence a disparu de nos jours et la composition particulière de la patine sont sans doute la preuve de son ancienneté et d’une évolution certaine des rites et traditions dans cette région.
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Numerous African art objects collected in the course of colonial or ethnological expeditions during the 20th century are partially or completely covered with a so-called “patina”. These patinas have been formed during religious and ritual ceremonies, where different substances have been spread out at the surface of the objects. The anthropomorphic statuettes from the Dogon culture are well-known examples of this kind of practice. A better understanding of the chemical composition of these patinas could explain details of the ceremonial practices realized throughout the centuries. An important challenge is to extract unequivocal information about the original constituents of these patinas, and the techniques used for their application on ritual objects.
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Chemical imaging techniques, based on the combination of microscopy and spectroscopy, are well suited to study both the composition and the spatial organization of heterogeneous complex mixtures of organic and mineral matter. Time-of-flight secondary ion mass spectrometry (ToF-SIMS), followed by scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive X-ray analysis (SEM-EDX) and Fourier transform infrared microscopy (FTIR microscopy) have been applied to non-destructive analysis of micro-samplings of ritual matters deposited on the surface of African wooden statuettes. With a very careful preparation, using ultramicrotomy on embedded samples, it was possible to perform successively all the measurements on a single fragment. Comparison and superposition of the different chemical images, obtained on a sample from a significant actual artefact, have allowed us to identify minerals (clays, quartz and calcium carbonate), proteins, starch, urate salts and lipids and to map their spatial distribution.
The views of Novelette-Aldoni Stewart, a postgraduate student at University College London, on the treatment of sacred objects from African cultures by the museum professionals are discussed. African objects require no special treatment apart from those which prevent the object's deterioration. It is believed that Africans have only a temporary investment in sacred objects as they are routinely replaced and sometimes thrown away. The conservation approach that includes consultation with elders and stake-holding communities has helped to have respect for the value, meanings, and the safeguarding of sacred objects. It is now considered good professional practice to undertake consultation with representatives from the object's source community as a precursor to the conservation process. An important thing for museums is to create multicultural partnerships in pursuing their new visions of not following the cultural contexts formed from pre-colonial, and colonial times.
A compelling examination of one of the most artistically rich and creative African kingdoms Artists from the kingdom of Kongo-a vast swath of Central Africa that today encompasses the Republic of Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Angola-were responsible for outstanding creative achievements. With the influx of Portuguese, Dutch, and Italian merchants, missionaries, and explorers, Kongo developed a unique artistic tradition that blended European iconography with powerful indigenous art forms. An initially positive engagement with Europe in the 15th century turned turbulent in the wake of later displacement, civil war, and the slave trade-and many of the artworks created in Kongo reflect the changing times. This comprehensive study is the first major catalogue to explore Kongo's history, art forms, and cultural identity before, during, and after contact with Europe. Objects range from 15th-century "mother-and-child" figures, which reflect a time when Europeans and their Christian motifs were viewed favorably, to fearsome mangaaka, power figures that conveyed strength in the midst of the kingdom's dissolution. Lavishly illustrated with new photography and multiple views of three-dimensional works, this book presents the fascinatingly complex artistic legacy of one of Africa's most storied kingdoms.
This paper examines the use, function, and maintenance of particular objects with nontangible significance in some African cultures. Deductive observations about these objects allow possible conclusions to be drawn regarding: (1) an African perception of magic, sacred, and power; and (2) an African perception of culturally significant objects in and out of an indigenous context. The suggestion is stressed that it is the responsibility of the conservator to remain informed about an object's nontangible attributes and to treat African objects with cultural dignity.
This study seeks to characterize the blooms found typically on wooden ritual and functional objects produced by the related tribes, the Bamana (Bambara) and the Dogon, in the country of Mali in West Africa. A preliminary examination of the surface material from four wood sculptures suggested the presence of fatty acid esters. Ethnographic literature on these tribes records the widespread practice of applying vegetable seed fats and oils to ritual and household objects. Nine fat and oil samples were obtained, including shea butter extracted by the author. These served as references for infrared spectroscopic and gas chromatographic examination of over 30 samples from sculpture surfaces. Results suggest that a white bloom on Mali wood sculptures may be the result of an ethnographic fat application, and is therefore important to the research potential of the object. The mechanism of fatty bloom formation is described, using cocoa butter as a model.
Prior to exhibiting an African Komo mask from the collections of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a multianalytical approach was undertaken to characterize the flaking encrusted coating on the surface of the mask. Preliminary XRF and FTIR examination of the coating on the Komo mask revealed the presence of significant quantities of iron and protein, possibly indicating the presence of blood. Raman spectroscopy showed evidence for the porphyrin structure of haem as well. To confirm that blood was indeed present in the coating, we developed a novel method for identifying the haem moiety from blood by use of in situ methylation and direct analysis in real time mass spectrometry (DART-MS). Following a denaturing step with formic acid, the resulting solution was combined with an excess of phenyltrimethylammonium hydroxide to promote desorption, applied to a melting point tube, and placed into the direct analysis in real time ion source gas stream at 550 °C. The permethylated haem ion (m/z 644.208) from myoglobin, haemoglobin, fresh blood, and blood aged in the laboratory for 10 years was readily observed above the background. By the described DART-TOF-MS method, permethylated haem was positively identified in the mask coating, confirming the presence of blood. This method has obvious utility in forensic science beyond that for identifying blood incorporated in cultural heritage materials.
Electronic version is provided courtesy of JSTOR.
"July 1999." Thesis (Ph. D.)--University of Iowa, 1999. Includes bibliographical references (leaves 236-243). Photocopy.
Thesis--Universite Libre de Bruxelles, 1981. Includes bibliographical references. Microfiche.
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