Monday, 4 April 2016

An Igbo Ikenga from the UCL Ethnography Collections (M.0029)

Figure 1 M.0029 Effigy of ikenga, Ibo, South Nigeria, West Africa (photographs by the author)

This wooden effigy (M.0029) is called “ikenga” by Igbo people in South Nigeria. This simple description on the catalogue was the only information I had when I first encountered the object. Through research, I found that there are several types of ikenga ranging from abstract to humanistic forms. This ikenga is a very general type, which can be easily found in Igboland.
Unfortunately, this effigy does not have any records about when and where exactly or by whom it was collected. There are several possible routes that might explain how and when the object was obtained. But, I believe that it is highly likely that the object was acquired by someone doing field work in Nigeria.
First, the former chairman of the Anthropology Department in UCL, Daryll Forde was an ardent scholar of African art. In the correspondence between Wellcome collection and Forde. He expressed his great interest in African and Melanesian artifacts (Correspondence, 1951).
However, it is unlikely that the item came from Wellcome Collection, as indicated by its accession number . According to Delphine Mercier (Manager of the UCL Ethnography Collections),  item M.0099 was acquired from a field work in Nigeria in 1930s. It was bought by “Victoria District Office “. Given that the accessions were numbered in sequence, it could be assumed that objects between M.0029 and M.0099 were the original collection items - but this is just a hypothesis. It is possible that the ikenga was purchased or donated by academic staff or others before the Wellcome collection arrived (1950s).
Besides, the history of ikenga could be surmised from its condition. The most outstanding damage is its lost horn. The left horn was broken in the past (Fig 2). The broken part is missing. It appears that it came to the collection in a damaged condition.

Figure 2 Early reassembled machete and a foreign wooden support (photographs by the author)

Another peculiar feature is the use of PVA adhesives on the broken machete on the right hand (Fig 3) The identification of adhesive was conducted with aid of UV-fluorescence Dino Lite microscope. The adhesive stains emit blue fluorescence, which may indicate the presence of PVAs. Other physical properties also coincide with those of PVAs.

Figure 3 Map of adhesives on ikenga body using Ultraviolet Dino-light Microscope (photographs by the author)

The overall wooden sculpture was so brittle that the tip of the right horn broke off. Usually, wooden sculptures are very vulnerable to environments with temperature and relative humidity fluctuations. Therefore, it should be kept in a safer storage to minimize the handling and prevent further damage. Fortunately, as this assessment was accompanied with a rehousing project, I could build a new storage for the object. 


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Bentor, E.L.I., 1988. Life as an Artistic Process: Igbo Ikenga and Ofo. African Arts, 21(2), pp.66–71.
Boston, J., 1977. Ikenga Figures among the North-West Igbo and the Igala, London: London Ethnographica.
Carmen F. Bria, 1986. ‘The History of the Use of Synthetic Consolidants and Lining Adhesives’. WAAC NEWSLETTER. (Jan. 1986) Available from: [Accessed: 20 March 2016]. 
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Ethnography Collection, n.d. ’ History of the Ethnography Collections’.  Available from: [Accessed :February 22, 2016].
Department of Anthropology, n.d. ‘Adhesives and Consolidants’.  Available from: B-72. [Accessed :February 26, 2016].
Forde, D., 1951. Letter to Dr. Ashworth Underwood, 30th May
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Great Britain, 2013. ‘Making Joints with Different Types of Adhesives’. In Science for Conservators: Volume 3 : Adhesives and Coatings. United Kingdom: Routledge Ltd. pp.49-63
Jeffreys, M.D.W., 1951. The Winged Solar Disk or Ibo Itzi Facial Scarification. Journal of the International African Institute, 21(2), pp.93–111.
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Smith, C. et al., 1989. ‘46. Adhesives’. In Paper Conservation Catalog by AIC Book and Paper Group. 6th ed. Available from:

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2015-16), one of the core courses of the UCL MA  Principles of Conservation. As part of their assessed work for this course, students were asked to investigate objects from the UCL Ethnography Collections at the UCL Department of Anthropology. Here they present a summary of their main conclusions. We hope you enjoy our work! Comments are most welcome.

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