Academic journal article African Studies Review

Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture

Academic journal article African Studies Review

Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture

Article excerpt

Leonard Ka han. Donna Page, and Pascal Imperato, eds. Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture. Bloomington Indiana University Press, 2009. 536 pp. 122 Color Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $75.00. Cloth.

Surfaces was inspired by an exhibition by the same name that was curate d by the authors for the African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers in Tenafly, New Jersey, in 2004. In the book the authors assert that the surfaces of African sculptures, like their forms, are imbued with important cultural meanings and that these surfaces require detailed study. The volume includes seven chapters that investigate a variety of materials and artistic practices used to decorate, embellish, and treat the surfaces of wood sculpture. Each draws our attention to the ways that surfaces may be intentionally or unintentionally altered over the lifetime of an object. As they are altered, the sculptures accrue additional meanings and their alterations often provoke intense aesthetic responses.

The first five chapters constitute the book's argument for a more robust study of surfaces in African art. The first two essays, a historical essay on embellishments written by Kahan, a curator of African art, and an essay on the materials by Page, a museum conservator, establish the framework for the book. These two essays use examples from throughout the continent, drawing from a wide array of published sources from quite different time periods. The three case studies that follow - Imperato on Bamana sculpture, Bordogna on Yoruba ibeji, and Campbell on Yoruba orisa - narrow the focus as each of these authors investigates the particularities and nuances of the relationship among surface embellishments, aesthetic systems, local belief systems, and meaning in the making and use of objects among the Bamana and Yoruba, respectively. Collectively the five essays argue persuasively that by attending to objects' surfaces, we open ourselves up to thinking about African sculpture in new and more comprehensive ways.

The final two chapters engage larger issues in material science, and along with the two appendixes, they constitute an invaluable reference guide. Kahan 's essay, delineating the various surface markings and conditions of wood objects, and Page's essay, listing the various substances applied to objects, are especially useful for museum curators and conservators who are regularly engaged in describing, cataloguing, and treating African sculptures. …

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