Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton

Urhobo artist, Mask, 1800–10. Wood, pigment, metal, 69.2 × 26.7 × 15.2 cm. Promised Museum Acquisition from the Holly and David Ross Collection.

Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton examines how changes to the surfaces of African sculptures alter their appearance and power over time. The exhibition showcases the Museum’s growing African collection and loans from private collections.

African artists tended to define the underlying form of a work but over many years, a range of users or ritual experts could intervene to renew its surface. In some examples, substances such as earth, oils, or grains applied to a sculpture during ritual offerings activated the form for power or healing and, in the process, transformed the object’s patina. Other objects were empowered over time as ritual experts attached materials, including feathers, fabrics, and mirrors. Surface colors changed when masks were repainted for subsequent performances. As the works reached the West, however, dealers of African art often removed these layers of surface, shaping a different (and arguably false) understanding of African art. More recently, however, the complexity of objects’ surface accumulations have come to be appreciated as bearers of cultural and aesthetic value, displaying layers of color, encrustation, or attachments and thus of artistic and cultural intervention.

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To look “beneath the surface” of a few of the works in the exhibition, click on the links below:

Kongo nkisi (power figure) 

Urhobo mask     

Senufo sculpture

Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton has been made possible by support from the Francis E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund, with additional support from the Friends of the Princeton University Art Museum.