JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. 03 to 16)
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Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 2 (pp. 03 to 16)



ABSTRACT—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.


Many people in Western cultures view African objects as culturally foreign and aesthetically challenging while readily acknowledging their nontangible attributes. Yet these nontangible attributes are often poorly defined and considered not only incomprehensible but also potentially dangerous. These attributes might include the concepts that objects embody supernatural spirits, personify ancestors, or maintain power inherently. As conservators, we work intimately on these objects; we understand the physical and chemical properties of these sometimes complex constructions, but their nontangible aspects can still remain difficult curiosities that are partially addressed through courteous but uninformed acknowledgment, benign disregard, or even outright fear. This paper is an attempt to look at these nontangible attributes associated with African objects and how these attributes affect treatment decisions that we make in a nonindigenous setting, that is, in art conservation laboratories, studios, or exhibition planning meetings.

Some specific examples in African art where nontangible attributes might have an effect on treatment decisions can be seen in the following:

  1. Should we look inside a Yoruba beaded crown (fig. 1), considered to be the premier piece of divine regalia, to mend the textile lining (fig. 2), or lend slides of its interior to the education department, when in cultural context it is forbidden for anyone, including the king, to view the interior?
  2. Should we secure loose and detached fragments of sacrificial patination on a Bamana Komo headdress (fig. 3), when the amount and thickness of this incrustation (fig. 4) are directly related to the degree and effectiveness of its cultural power?
  3. Should we mend the shattered arm on a Kongo nkisi figure (figs. 5–6), when culturally, destroying the object might be the only way to mitigate its unrestrainable power?
  4. Should we feed, bathe, caress, or store in a particular manner a Yoruba ibeji(figs. 7–8) to placate the spirit of a deceased twin so that it does not call for the spirit of the surviving twin or its descendants?
  5. How do we justify the public exhibition of an Igala shrine figure (fig. 9), which would have been restricted from public view and seen only by people of a specific age, sex, or initiate?

Fig. 1. Crown, Yoruba peoples, Nigeria, Glass beads, basketry, textile, vegetable fiber, metal, H 30 � in (78. 1cm). NMAfA 24-1989-01 (private lender). Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

Fig. 2. Detail of fig. 1. Photograph by Dana Moffett

Fig. 3. Komo headdress, Bamana peoples, Mali, Wood, horn, porcupine quill, hair, metal, incrustation, Diam. 32 � in (83.2cm). Seattle Art Museum, Katherine White Collection 81.17.18. Photograph by Steve Mellor

Fig. 4. Detail of fig. 3. Photograph by Steve Mellor

Fig. 5. Nkisi, Kongo peoples, Zaire, Wood, iron, Beads, vegetable fiber, glass, feathers, chalk, resin, H 31 11/16 in (81.4cm). Seattle Art Museum, Katherine White Collection 81.17.836. Photograph by Steve Mellor

Fig. 6. Detail of fig. 5; Proper right arm. Photograph by Steve Mellor

Fig. 7. Female twin figures (ere ibeji), Yoruba peoples, Nigeria, Wood, shell, vegetable fiber, takula, glass beads, pigment. H10 � in (26.6cm). NMAfA 83-6-1.1, 1.2. Photograph by Ken Heinen

Fig. 8. Caretaker with memorial figures, representing three generations of twins in her family. Egbado, Yoruba. Photograph by Henry J. Drewal

Fig. 9. (top) Icons: Ideals and Power in the Art of Africa, exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, 1898–90

Africa is two and one-half times the size of the United States, contains 44 sub-Saharan countries, and thousands of linguistic and traditional cultural groups. These factors—coupled with Africa's distance from the United States and its relative geographic inaccessibility, as well as the impact of culture change over time due to politics, religion, or colonialization—make access to the people who can best interpret an object's nontangible attributes difficult. In addition, Africa lacks transcontinental advocacy groups who might actively address material culture issues.

It is the intention in this paper to ascertain an indigenous perspective: how Africans feel about nontangible attributes, how Africans might view objects out of their cultural context, and how Africans might want us to treat their culturally significant objects.


Without access to the people who made and used these objects, the best approach is to look at the use, function, and maintenance of objects in their cultural setting in an attempt to extrapolate how Africans feel. The method of inquiry included an examination of the life histories of some objects in the Permanent Galleries at the National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., as well as works in other collections with particular nontangible significance. Curators, art historians, anthropologists, and Africans in the museum field who had contact with African cultures and could provide cultural insight were surveyed.

Curators are often our first source of information pertaining to collection objects. Their knowledge regarding manufacture, use, and collection history consistently refines a conservator's observations and treatment proposals. However, the responses from curators when asked about nontangible aspects often seemed vague and ambiguous. One curator said, for example, that it was acceptable for anyone to view the interior of the Yoruba crown on exhibition at NMAfA provided there were no Nigerians present. Other comments bordered on the pejorative, as in “I don't believe in ju-ju”—a reference to African religion.

From the literature, we can see that as early as the 16th century, the nontangible attributes of African materials were being addressed. The text associated with a 1598 German engraving, titled Abjuration du Roi de Congo(fig. 10), argues that the forces emanating from some African objects were so disturbing that it was necessary to burn them (MacGaffey 1990b). During the 19th century, when African objects increasingly entered Western cultural institutions, they were seen as curiosities and aberrations that did not fit within the realm of organized Western religions. Even today, some museum personnel admit to being slightly uncomfortable in African art storage and consciously avoid those areas.

Fig. 10. (center, left) Abjuration du Roi de Congo, Theodore and Israel DeBry, Frankfort, 1598. Engraving.

Of course, in reality, complex cosmological and religious systems exist throughout Africa. Simply stated, these systems exist to manipulate an invisible world that can directly affect the day-to-day existence of a cultural group. In turn, they reinforce interpersonal interactions as well as political and economic systems.

In the literature, the terms “magic,” “sacred,” and “power” are often used randomly and interchangeably in reference to African material culture. To more clearly distinguish individual objects, distinctions among these categories are offered here. It should be presumed that in a cultural context there is less distinction between “magic,” “sacred,” and “power”; consequently, techniques for using these nontangible concepts and the interpretation of their results might appear to overlap.


“Magic” is the most ubiquitous and also the most difficult concept to define. Magic transpires when supernatural forces are invoked to produce otherwise unexplainable, often individualized results. The use of magic can be the domain of ritual specialists such as diviners, oracles, and witches as well as craftsmen who control the magic inherent in some raw materials.

A Chokwe divination basket (fig. 11) contains more than 100 reference symbols, such as small figures, miniature tools, or bundles of plant and animal parts, that to the uninformed individual appear to become randomly configured when the basket is shaken. A diviner, however, can interpret these magic configurations. The diviner's abilities come from two possible sources: He or she may have been trained by supernatural forces, or may be actually spirit possessed during the consultation. These abilities allow the diviner to act on behalf of the supernatural world to advise a client or solve a problem.

Fig. 11. (center, right) Divination basket, Chokwe peoples, Zaire and Angola. Basketry fiber and various materials, Diam. 15 � in (40cm). NMAfA 86-12-17.1-154. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

Interestingly, a diviner's prescription can result in the commissioning of a work of art such as a Baule female figure (fig. 12)(Anderson and Kreamer 1989). The physical characteristics of the sculpture would be rigorously specified by the diviner. The Baule believe some spirits to be particularly hideous, with feet that point backwards, filthy skin, and wild red hair (Vogel 1973). In the case of this type of figure, it was the intention of the artist to create a sculpture that attains the highest cultural aesthetics, thereby placating a displeased or trouble-causing spirit. The commissioning and creation of the sculpture, rather than the actual existence of the sculpture, magically intercede for the benefit of a client.

Fig. 12. Female figure (Blolo Bla or Asie Asu). Baule group, Akan peoples, Cote d'Ivoire. Wood, metal, glass beads, vegetable fiber, H 18 � in (47.6 cm). NMAfA 85-15-2. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

Similarly, a unique Akan double-headed akua'ba(fig. 13) was commissioned as a vehicle for supernatural forces to induce pregnancy. The akua'ba is carried by a woman for a specific period of time, adorned with beads, and suckled and treated as a real child, thus ensuring conception and healthy delivery. After effecting pregnancy, at which time it has fulfilled its function, the akua'ba can be relegated to a shrine as an advertisement for the success of supernatural intervention, or it might be sold, given away, or treated as any other secular object.

Fig. 13. Akua'ba (male view). Asante group, Akan peoples, ghana. Wood, glass beads, vegetable fiber, H 14 � in (37.5cm). NMAfA 87-4-1. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

Throughout Africa, blacksmiths retain a high social standing because they control the inherently magic raw material—iron. Among the Bamana, skill in smithing is seen as a mastery over the magic in nature and results in a concentration of cultural energy (nyama) in the blacksmith himself. This nyama affords the blacksmith tremendous authority, and his creations, from farming implements to wrought sculptural forms (fig. 14), are a visible expression of this accumulated cultural energy.

Fig. 14. Staff top, bamana peoples, Mali. Iron. H 9 ⅛ in (23.2cm). NMAfA 85-19-1. Photograph by Kim Nielsen


Sacred objects function within the more structured realm of traditional African religions and constitute the largest category of African material culture. Most African religions contain a broad and hierarchical pantheon of spirits often referred to as bush, water, and ancestral spirits. Within a community, these spirits can be reached through elaborate masquerades, within shrines or during annual ceremonies.

It is understood in Western cultures that masks such as a Kalabari water spirit mask or a Punu bush spirit mask (fig. 15) are only one component of a masquerading ceremony that includes an associated costume, dancing, music, and other ritual behavior (fig. 16). It is not well known, however, that masks never physically resemble or embody spirits but rather represent characteristics of the spirits such as aggression. Masks can also induce emotional responses such as fear and anxiety in the audience. Instead, it is the masker himself that is transformed into the supernatural spirit (Cole 1989). The entire ceremony activates spiritual power and mediates between the spiritual and visible worlds.

Fig. 15. Mask, Punu peoples, Gabon, Wood, pigment, buttons, H 13 � in (35cm). NMAfA 90-6-1. Photograph by Dana Moffett.

Fig. 16. Stilt dencer, Punu peoples, Gabon. Photograph by Michel Huet

Shrines are found throughout Africa and vary widely in purpose, place, and form. A Dogon shrine figure (fig. 17) comes closest to typifying Western expectations of the appearance and use of shrine sculpture. The figure would have been placed on a personal altar and, amid incantations, water and rice gruel would have been poured on it and probably several animals would have been sacrificed. For the Dogon people the sculpture serves several purposes. It identifies the individual who is asking for supernatural intervention, being made in his or her image and not that of a spirit. Moreover, the sculpture draws the attention of the supernatural beings to the proceeding, because the Dogon believe that these beings are inherently lethargic and have limited attention spans. Most important, the figure maintains constant contact with the supernatural world until its owner's problem is resolved. It is reported that the Dogon say “one cannot always kneel at the altar—but the statue can” (Van Beek 1988, 60). The sacrifice is pivotal, and without it the sculpture is considered simply a piece of wood. A particularly successful statue that has been used in many sacrifices can become dangerous. For this reason, less frequent and less elaborate sacrifices deactivate the figure, and it can then be safely discarded.

Fig. 17. Shrine figure, Dogon peoples, Mali, Wood, pitination. H 12 � in (31.7cm). NMAfA EL81.67.2 (private lender). Photograph by the owner

The significance of sacred Chamba figures (fig. 18) is not in the individual sculptures themselves but in their placement and association with other figures that identify a sacred grove in the Benue River valley region of northern Nigeria. The grove is maintained as a dwelling place for spirits and provides an important way station in the transition of souls to the afterlife. It is reported that if the figures are removed, the grove and indeed the Chamba people will wither and die (Stevens 1976). However, religious protocol indicates that it is imperative that these sacred figures be minimally sheltered and exposed to the elements over which the spirits exercise control. Consequently, the periodic replacement of insect damaged or weathered figures is a prerequisite in their cultural care. In this situation, a new figure not only replaces the old figure but actually becomes the old figure. Continuity of the sacred is maintained, and the old figure can be retired.

Fig. 18. Male and female figures, Chamba peoples, Nigeria. Wood, pigment, incrustation. H 21 in (53.3cm). Private collection. Photograph by the owner

Ancestor worship is thought to be an integral part of many non-Western religions. In many African religions the deceased are regarded as having certain control over their descendants. They can influence childbirth, effect cures, or ensure success. Ancestor sculptures like Hemba figures (fig. 19) are created as memorials to commemorate the deceased. The sculptures act as a visual reminder of ancestral power. The effectiveness of each object, however, is directly proportional to the extent of living memory. After only a few generations, the individual commemorated by this type of sculpture would not specifically be remembered, and the sculpture would fall into a generic ancestral category in which it is less accurately identified and less revered.

Fig. 19. Ancestor figure, Hemba peoples, Zaire. Wood. H 26 in (66cm). NMAfA 85-1-13. Photograph by Roger Asselberghs


The third category of African objects with nontangible attributes deals with power. These objects, simply by their constitution, maintain intrinsic power. Within their cultures, these objects are distinguished by the fact that they have a will of their own, can independently carry out deeds, and can control the behavior of human beings. Notably, intrinsically powerful objects are geographically limited to the Congo River basin and certain areas in the Western Sudan (Rubin 1974).

The materials incorporated into these objects impart power. Nonvisible elements known to be included in the construction of these objects include riverbed stones from the dwelling places of water spirits; certain red and white earths; medicinal plant substances with bush spirit power; bones, flesh, fur, or claws of a lion, leopard, or monkey; droppings of lightning found at the base of trees; bones and flesh of someone who committed suicide; fingernails and hair of sorcerers; or bits of warrior remains from a battleground. Visible embellishments can include animal horns, reptile skins, feathers, textiles, nails, beads, metal, fur, shell (Hersak 1986), and all of those materials familiar to ethnographic conservators.

The accumulated energy from these significant elements is realized when included in an object. The inclusion and association of elements are never random but follow strict cultural guidelines and traditions drawing upon the powers of ancestors, diviners, and spirits. As with magic and sacred objects in Africa, sacrifices, libations, ceremonies, and rituals, performed by a specialist, are required to invoke the power of power objects. However, it is the accumulation of additive elements over time and the buildup of sacrificial patination on these objects that continue to enhance their effectiveness.

Power substances in a Teke figure (fig. 20) are concealed in a cavity in the chest. After elaborate rituals, including anointing the figure with clays or imported camwood, tree sap, or blood and spit, the figure is considered to have been given birth and is invested with power. The power can be effective for economic success in hunting and trading or useful against disease. Although the effectiveness of the figure's power is not always consistent, the Teke seldom consider the figure to be without power (Hottot 1956). When ineffective, the figure's health and therefore its power can be restored through rituals that vary from exposing it to soothing music to beating it with a switch. Only in rare instances can a figure lose its power; sorcery or spiritual intervention invoked by another person directly against the figure can render it totally powerless.

Fig. 20. Standing figure. Teke poeples, Republic of Congo. Wood, clay, sand, tula, body cavity materials, H 14 � in (37.5cm). NMAfA 90-2-1. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

A Songye figure (fig. 21) derives its power from accumulated substances. It would have been maintained in a shrine with limited access. The purpose of limited access is twofold: to protect the community from the effects of overexposure to its power and, to protect the object from extraneous contamination that could severely diminish its power and effectiveness. Should either event occur, the figure would be replaced with a fresher, newer, more powerful construction.

Fig. 21. Figure, Songye peoples, Zaire, Wood, metal, shell, horn, accunulated materials, H 26 in (66cm). NMAfA 86-4-1. Photograph by Jeffrey Ploskonka

The thickness of the incrustation (McNaughton 1978), as well as the combination of additive elements, on one type of Bamana Komo mask (fig. 22) indicates the mask's degree of intrinsic power. The Komo mask is under the strict domain of Bamana blacksmiths, who are responsible for maintaining a harmonious equilibrium throughout Bamana life. Through its construction and association with blacksmiths, the Komo mask harnesses great quantities of cultural power. In the event that the blacksmith is not judicious in his use of authority for the good of the community, it is likely that he would be challenged, thereby significantly diminishing his power and that of the Komo mask.

Fig. 22. Komo headdress. Bamana poeples, Mali. Wood, horn, porcupine quills, feathers, incrustation. NMAfA Elisofon Archives. Photograph by Eliot Elisofon

The Kongo people do not readily distinguish among human beings, animals, and objects as containers for power. After fabrication and being imbued with power through accumulations, multiple additions, and ritual, the Kongo nkisi figure (fig. 23) achieves a state of personhood (MacGaffey 1990a), and, like any other important member of the society, must be treated with the respect afforded it by its place in the social hierarchy of the community. For example, should the nkisi fall over, those around it must fall to the ground as well and apologies made before it can be picked up. Invoking the power of a nkisi by a ritual specialist for a client is a costly affair and assumed to require payment of a human life. Actually, activating the nkisi is accomplished by annoying it, by the explosion of gunpowder, for example, or by insulting it by making derogatory remarks about its mother-in-law (MacGaffey 1990a). Driving a stake into the figure further angers it, and out of anger the nkisi retaliates. In general, the nkisi are considered unpredictable and violently aggressive and are regarded with distrust and suspicion.

Fig. 23. Nkisi. Kongo peoples, Zaire. Wood;, metal, raffia cloth, pigment, resin, shell, H 44 � in (113.1.cm). Field Museum of Natural History 109327. Photograph by Daine Alexander White

Despite the extraordinary power of nkisi figures, one of the most effective ways the Kongo people have to render them powerless is simply to treat them with indifference, that is, to ignore the behavioral restrictions required toward them or neglect their cultural status. The power of a nkisi can also be mitigated if it is deliberately destroyed, if its owner dies, or if it is sold or transferred (MacGaffey 1990a). In all these situations, however, there is the possibility that the nkisi will retaliate.


From this brief look at how some African objects function in cultural context, several observations can be made. In some African societies, objects are used as intermediaries, they mediate, placate, provide access to, respond to, or focus the attention of the supernatural world. Specialized individuals and highly structured behavior or activities are required to make effective use of the nontangible attributes of these objects. Unexpectedly, it is observed that although objects can be passed on for generations, even magic, sacred, and powerful objects are routinely and systematically inactivated, replaced, discarded, ignored, or destroyed within their cultural context.

From these observations, several deductions that may be applicable to other African cultures can be made that begin to illuminate an African perspective about the existence, use, and maintenance of nontangible attributes:

  1. Magic, sacredness, and power are cultural resources, and strict rules exist to maintain and perpetuate these resources. Naturally, these resources are most effective when they are retained within their cultural context.
  2. Magic, sacredness, and power are activated by specific cultural behavior.
  3. The use of magic, sacredness, and power is not static. Traditional African cultures are by nature dynamic and changing. This flexibility allows for the adjustment of behavior toward manifestations of the supernatural when previous behavior proves to be ineffective or no longer necessary.

Conclusions can be drawn that might express an African perception of objects exhibiting nontangible attributes and reflect an African perception of these objects outside of their cultural context:

  1. Africans do not view objects as having an independent life of their own. Instead, objects are an integral part of cultural activities and behaviors. These activities and behaviors are necessary to activate power and make objects effective. However, behavior is readily adjusted when objects prove to be ineffective. This dynamic and changing character of appropriate behavior toward magic, sacred, and power objects allows for a wide variety of options for the disposal of even culturally significant objects.
  2. Africans do not consider objects to embody spirits or ancestors. Objects themselves are not seen as simply habitations for supernatural forces or strictly as analogous representations of these forces.
  3. Africans do not perceive that objects carry magic or power outside of their cultural context. Objects embody the cultural resources of magic, sacredness, and power. These objects are used and maintained within the society for the benefit of individuals within those societies. As a matter of fact, many traditional Africans find it curious that these objects have any significance to Western cultures.


These conclusions presenting a possible African view of indigenous material culture have important implications for conservators because they begin to broaden our understanding of the African objects we are responsible for and refine our treatment and exhibition care decisions.

Most important, it becomes clear that, as conservators, it is not necessary for conservators to treat African objects that are out of their cultural context with the same strict behavior required when they are within their cultural context; nor would Africans expect them to receive that kind of treatment. We need not feed these objects, wash them, dance them, suckle them, spit on them, beat them, insult them, sacrifice upon them, or subject them to limited visibility. Indeed, it is somewhat patronizing to presume that we could replicate these complex patterns of cultural behavior toward objects. Furthermore, we need not approach African objects with uncertainty, fear, or trepidation.

Standard conservation decisions that might be relevant to African objects include, for example, the method and degree to bulk gap filling materials to provide structural stability to a wooden object; the choice of synthetic resin and technique of application to consolidate applied incrustation; or the extent of filling and inpainting to provide visual integration to a painted surface. For example, the shattered arm on the nkisi in figure 5 was re-adhered and stabilized with Dow Corning RTV 3110 silicon rubber that was bulked with Union Carbide phenolic microballoons, BJO-0930. The acknowledgment and understanding of the nontangible attributes of African objects may not have a dramatic effect on conservation treatments, but at least they should affect the way conservators think about African art. These conservation decisions should be overshadowed by the conservator's responsibility to treat or participate in the installation of African objects in a manner that conscientiously respects the dignity of the cultures that produced them.

The interpretation of an object and its presentation for exhibition with dignity can be a difficult and subjective issue. The National Museum of African Art is in the initial planning stages of an exhibition of Kongo minkisi (plural of nkisi) and works by contemporary African artists who draw directly on the minkisi tradition. The artistic intention of the contemporary artists may preclude the use of vitrines to protect their constructions; however, conservation sensibility of lending and host institutions would undoubtedly require the vitrining of the fragile minkisi figures. This contradiction between the exhibition of objects borne of the same tradition must be resolved by the institution. One might ask, as well, if it is appropriate to vitrine objects of such unmitigated power. The conservation problems associated with leaving such complicated objects unvitrined are obvious, even to the novice.


To care for African objects in a manner that respects their aesthetic, formal, contextual, and nontangible attributes, conservators must remain vigilantly informed about African cultures. This can be a formidable task, particularly when we are confronted with objects for which the historical and contextual records are incomplete. However, by pursuing dialogues with Africanists, anthropologists, art historians, and Africans and by studying pertinent literature from dissertation studies to catalogues raisonn�s, conservators can constantly refine their understanding of African objects. When conservators are prepared to make informed conservation decisions concerning treatment and exhibition and offer enlightened opinions regarding acquisitions, deaccessioning, or even repatriation, then they will be assured that they have treated these objects with dignity.


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STEPHEN P. MELLOR received his M.S. from the University of Delaware, Winterthur Art Conservation Program, in 1981 after completing his internship in the Objects Conservation Department for the Rockefeller collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He has worked as conservator for the Peabody Museum in Cambridge, Mass., and for the African, Oceanic, and the Americas Department at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. He is presently chief conservator for the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. Address: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. 20560.

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Copyright � 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works