Almost seven feet tall and carved from a single piece of hardwood, a newly treated Urhobo figure of a nursing mother (fig. 1) stands imposingly at the entrance to the reinstalled African art galleries.

A large, wooden figurative sculpture stands against a dark blue wall. The sculpture is the focal point of a view of a gallery. To the left of the sculpture hangs a dark pink and blue textile. A single white wall with text stands approximately 10 feet away. In the background, art objects can be seen on pedestals

fig. 1. View of the Urhobo maternity figure at the entrance to the newly reinstalled Laura and James J. Ross Gallery of African Art

The Urhobo people of southern Nigeria have a long tradition of wood carving, extending back as far as the 13th century. The maternity figure in the Gallery’s collection, which dates from the late 19th or early 20th century, is decorated with scarifications on the face, arms, and breasts and with ikoro, ivory bracelets and anklets worn by women from wealthy families. The figure would have formed part of a group of monumental statues representing ancestral spirits, called edjo re akare or “spirits in carved form.” The chalk paint and reddish-brown accretions on the sculpture’s surface may relate to its ceremonial use by the Urhobo, as chalk is known to have been applied to the surfaces of such figures in the context of annual ritual festivities. When not in use, such figures were enshrined away from public view. Well into the 20th century, nearly every Urhobo community had at least one such shrine and often two—one for men, located within the village, and another for women, at a waterside site[1].

Detail photo of a wooden object that has losses, or material missing, from the base

fig. 2. Large losses at the base of the sculpture exposed the extent of termite damage

The maternity figure had originally been allocated a relatively short stint in the conservation lab, but the Gallery’s closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic presented an opportunity to devote more time to its repair. The most pressing issue was to treat the damage caused by a past infestation of termites. Beyond tell-tale frass (fecal pellets), there is often little external evidence of termite infestation, as they tend to work just beneath the surface. A large loss at the base of the sculpture exposed the extent of the honeycomb-like termite “galleries” (fig. 2). In other areas, only a paper-thin layer of wood and decoration remained at the surface, concealing the damage beneath and leaving the sculpture vulnerable to further harm from even gentle impact. A second area of concern was the extensive flaking of paint, primarily due to an insufficient amount of binder in the original formulation.

Although different conservation techniques and materials were required to treat the degraded wooden substrate and the flaking paint, both processes are described as “consolidation.” In conservation, consolidation refers to the application of a binding material (or consolidant) to improve the cohesion of loose or friable media and, if necessary, to reattach them to their support. Consolidants often consist of dilute adhesive solutions, which can be brushed or sprayed onto the object or injected beneath the surface (fig. 3). A good consolidant should be stable yet reversible and should not change the appearance of the artifact.

A woman with dark hair and a face mask kneels at the base of a wooden sculpture. She has an object in her hands and appears to be injecting the wooden sculpture with somethingd

fig. 3. Cathy Silverman, Assistant Conservator of Objects and Furniture, consolidates flaking surfaces by injecting funori, a traditional Japanese adhesive extracted from seaweed, with a syringe

The loss at the sculpture’s base allowed a consolidant to be injected into some of the termite galleries. A solution of Butvar B-98—a clear, colorless thermoplastic resin—dissolved in ethanol was injected in several rounds, starting with a relatively dilute solution and gradually increasing the concentration of resin to maximize penetration. Once dry, the resin imparted strength to the weakened wood by coating the galleries. For the areas where the termites had left only a paper-thin layer at the surface of the sculpture, the same resin was mixed with a bulking agent to make a paste thick enough to fill the cavity and support the overlying surface, but thin enough to be pushed through a syringe needle.

In consultation with James Green, the Frances and Benjamin Benenson Foundation Assistant Curator of African Art, it was agreed that the large area of loss should be filled—both to draw the eye away from this distracting “bite” and to protect against further harm to the original material by enclosing the jagged edges of the damaged wood. The edge of the loss was faced with a layer of Japanese tissue paper to create a barrier onto which a fill could be attached, allowing the addition to be easily removed in the future if necessary. A block of polyethylene foam was then carved to fit the profile of the loss (fig. 4). Once attached, the foam was covered in Japanese tissue, to which assorted paints and modelling pastes as well as coconut husk powder were applied to match the texture and color of the adjoining surfaces.

White material fills the gap of a base of a wooden sculpture

fig. 4. Polyethylene foam was carved to fit the profile of the loss and then covered in Japanese tissue paper

It was necessary to adopt a different approach for the consolidation of the paint surface. The challenge here was to select a material that could readhere the paint to the wooden substrate and improve the cohesion of the pigment particles without changing the surface appearance. Funori, a traditional Japanese adhesive extracted from seaweed, was chosen after tests demonstrated that it performed well without darkening the paint, increasing its gloss, or forming tidemarks. In some areas, the consolidant was applied directly to the surface with a soft brush. In areas where flakes were loose and inclined to dislodge or float away with the liquid adhesive, the funori was applied through thin Japanese tissue paper, which had first been brushed with a silicon solvent to prevent it from sticking to the surface. Gentle pressure was applied to encourage the lifting paint to adhere to the substrate. Once the funori had dried, the paper was carefully removed.

The project required a thorough understanding of materials. This included testing each consolidant to anticipate how it would interact with the materials already present and how it might change over time. As evident in the use of a modern synthetic resin for one purpose and a centuries-old natural adhesive for another, the selection of a consolidant depends upon the specific aims of the treatment.

The restored base of sculpture.

fig. 5. Paint, modelling paste, and coconut husk powder were applied over the fill to match the texture and color of the adjoining surfaces

While the fill at the base yielded some satisfying discernible results (fig. 5), the more important component of this conservation treatment—the consolidation of the wooden substrate and surface decoration—resulted in little visible change. However, the sculpture is now significantly more stable, allowing it to be returned to the galleries and safely appreciated by the public.

Catherine (Cathy) Silverman
Assistant Conservator of Objects and Furniture

Note:
[1] Foss, Perkins, “Where Gods and Mortals Meet: Continuity and Renewal in Urhobo Art,” African Arts 36, no. 4 (Winter 2003): 12, https://www.jstor.org/stable/3337976.

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