Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton

Pigment, cloth, mud, millet oil, and animal blood encrust, coat, or cover the works of African art in Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton. This exhibition of exceptional sculptures from the Princeton University Art Museum, including works newly acquired from the Holly and David Ross Collection and loans from other private collectors, explores culturally significant additions and changes to sculptures’ surfaces made over time. The twenty-five works from western and central Africa reveal surfaces in a constant state of becoming, renewed and enhanced through the interventions of ritual and daily life.

Mau artist, Ivory Coast, Mask, 20th century. Wood, cord, animal blood and hair, cowrie shells, and organic material, 27.9 x 8.9 x 10.2 cm. Private collectionWorks of art are often deemed complete when they leave the artist’s hand. In African art, however, artists frequently sculpted or took the first steps toward defining a work’s underlying form, and then a range of owners or ritual specialists assumed responsibility for the life and appearance of the object, adding to or subtracting from its surface. Over many years in an expert’s service or under a community’s protection, a work of art would evolve through use and wear, ritual sacrifices, or the addition of materials of empowerment.

Kurumba artist, Burkina Faso, Headdress (Adoné) (detail), early 20th century. Wood, pigment, seeds, organic material, cloth, thread, leather, and metal. Museum purchase, Mary Trumbull Adams Art FundMasks and headdresses are especially dynamic art forms, their surfaces sometimes repainted by new owners, whether to refresh their appearance for performances or to draw on the symbolism and power of particular colors. In the case of the Urhobo mask on view, danced at festivals in Nigeria to celebrate the water spirit, the family who owned it may have added red and blue pigments over time to create a new image for subsequent performances. The Kurumba headdress from Burkina Faso representing an antelope displays painted decorative spots and attached red seeds while also revealing subtle wear on the neck and along the snout, where a masquerader would have grasped the piece in order to lift it onto his head and steady it while dancing to honor ancestors and spirits.

African art made to be held or worn often shows subtle signs of wear. In the example of a small Mano mask from northeastern Liberia or the Ivory Coast—a region known for its portable maskettes—the owner would have made sacrifices of food, animal blood, or oils in order to maintain the mask’s protective power, resulting in an encrusted surface. The mask’s owner would also have rubbed it over a long period of time, the friction and transfer of skin oils creating a shiny patina on the nose, ears, mouth, and forehead.

Other works of art, such as a Kongo power figure (nkisi), were the tools of ritual experts who applied organic substances and other materials to activate the objects for power or healing. The Mau mask from the Ivory Coast, used by members of the Koma secret initiation society to detect sorcery and attract evil spirits, is encrusted with organic materials, including dried blood and hair from animal sacrifices. The sizeable Yoruba bowl used for ritual divination was sculpted by the Nigerian artist Areogun of Osi-Ilorin, with images of an Ifa priest, animals used in sacrifice, and the trickster god Eshu carved in the artist’s signature style of low relief. The bowl’s thick, dark surface is the result of its long history of ritual use, its sacrificial patina now almost concealing some of the work’s decorative incisions.

Areogun of Osi-Ilorin (Yoruba, 1885–1954), from Osi, Nigeria, Bowl (Opon Igede Ifa), before 1923. Wood and organic materials, h. 58.4 cm, diam. 43.2 cm. Museum acquisition from the Holly and David Ross Collection, with the support of the Fowler McCormick FundMany African sculptures were denuded of their layers and attachments in the West. Indeed, some of the earliest dealers of African art in America and Europe altered the works’ surfaces by polishing wooden objects and detaching encrustations or brass tacks. In an effort to appeal to their market, including those buyers interested in a modernist aesthetic, the dealers sometimes erased the distinctive characteristics that contextualized the objects within particular cultures and histories. More recently, accumulation has been recognized for its social and aesthetic value. Patina, additions of material, areas of repainting, discolorations, and repairs provide essential insight into objects’ layered histories of use, revealing the material sensitivity, artistic innovation, and spiritual practices of the objects’ owners and users.

Kongo artist, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Power Figure (Nkisi), early 20th century. Wood, mirror, beads, glass, fabric, metal, calabash, and string, 36.2 x 7.6 x 8.9 cm. Promised Museum acquisition from the Holly and David Ross CollectionAt the Princeton University Art Museum, collecting and exhibiting African art has been a priority in recent years, part of the Museum’s efforts to ensure the global reach of its collections. Since the original bequest of African art to the Museum in 1953, gifts and acquisitions have allowed us to display excellent examples of objects of prestige and daily use, royal regalia, and sculptures by Kuba, Akan, Yoruba, Bamun, Pende, and other artists representing the breadth of the African continent. Today, a growing interest in the field among Princeton alumni and friends coincides with the Art Museum’s ongoing commitment to strengthening its African holdings. New opportunities for acquiring and exhibiting these incredible works of art go hand in hand with meaningful opportunities for research and teaching by faculty and students from across campus.


Juliana Ochs Dweck

Mellon Curator of Academic Engagement