Tuesday, 5 April 2016

M.0045 – An Igbo Headdress from Nigeria

Figure 1 - M.0045 Wooden Effigy from Nigeria

The Ethnography Collection at UCL holds over 3000 objects and materials from a wide range of contexts all over the world.  African objects make up the largest portion of this collection, and one such item originates from the Igbo speaking people of Nigeria. M.0045 (Figure 1) is an effigy made of painted wood, with a cane and plant material base.  Not much more is known about this object, with there being no information on when or by whom it was collected, or even when it was donated to the Anthropology Department.

Figure 2 - Igbo Masquerade - courtesy of Ebere Groenouwe, KSAM

The Igbo speaking people are known for their cultural diversity, their art styles vary as you move across their territory, and much of it is borrowed from the tribes surrounding them.  As there was no information on the record about who may have collected and donated the headdress it was quite hard to narrow down specific information on its significance.  At first all I was sure of was the fact that it was some sort of effigy, although its cane basketry would soon point me towards masks and masquerades (Figure 2). With this pivotal bit of information the significance of the object became clear, as through it the Igbo’s were connected to the spirit world, allowing ancestors and nature to impart wisdom and affect the physical world.  The headdress now has multiple values, spiritual, aesthetic, and educational, whose intermingling has led to some destruction; namely the removal of attachments to present it in its more basic state. 

Figure 3 - Previous location of the Wooden Headdress
Figure 4 - New Mount for the Wooden Headdress

Although the figure was once in a very unstable location, one that left it susceptible to abrasion and bumps, the creation of a new mount has removed some of the danger (Figures 3 & 4).  The damage it has already accrued is minor, relegated to the back of the object, and some of its holes.  The feature that is in the worst condition would be the layer of kaolin white paint, which has flaked off extensively on the torso of the figure. This may have resulted in the flaking of a black layer of paint that had been applied over the kaolin, thus removing any patterns or symbols that may once have been there (Figure 5).  The object would definitely benefit from being in a more stable environment for the sake of the paint layer, although the wood itself seems to be withstanding the fluctuations that occur in its current environment. 

Figure 5 - Flaking of kaolin paint


Enekwe, O.E. 1982. Igbo Masks: The Oneness of Ritual and Theatre. Ph. D, Columbia University

Ashley-Smith, J., Umney, N., Ford, D. 1994. Let’s Be Honest - Realistic Environmental Parameters. in Roy, A. & Smith, P. Preventive Conservation: Practice, Theory and Research: Preprints of the Contributions to the Ottawa Congress, 12-16 September 1994. London: International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works

Bleakley, R. 1978. African Masks. London: Thames and Hudson

Kleiner, F.S.  2009. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Concise Global History. 2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth Cengage Learning

Ottenberg, S. 1975. Masked Rituals of Afikpo. Washington: University of Washington Press

Phillips, T. 1999. Africa: The Art of a Continent. London: Prestel

All images produced by author, please do not use without authorisation.

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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