Friday, 1 April 2016

A Ceremonial Igbo Ofo from the UCL Ethnography Collections

             OF THE IGBO OFO, M.0027                   
M.0027, UCL Ethnographic Collection, ritual Ofo from North Western region
of Igboland.*
M.0027 is a composite object carved from wood with metal bindings, encrusted with mud and facial markings of a white pigment. With further research, it has been identified as an Igbo Ofo, a symbol of justice and truth; a ritual object used in prayers and communication with the ancestors, derived from the physical branchlet of the sacred Ofo tree (Otubah 2015, 173). It measures 45cm long, by 15.75cm across the head, 7.5cm across the foot, and has a diameter of 8cm. The weight is approximately 900g.

While several styles of Ofo exist, this particular style – a club-shaped carved stave with iron embellishments was common in the North Western region of Igboland, confirming the suspected origins of the Onitsha province, declared on the the accompanying label (Ejizu 1987, 462).

Collected by Jeffreys,
donated by the Wellcome Trust
to the BM in 1954 (Af.1954,23.1559, 

© British Museum).
Private collection, example
of the Ofo stylistic group collected
by Jeffreys (Bentor 1988, 67).
This Ofo in particular is primarily concerned with aesthetic and scientific significance. An un-consecrated Ofo is simply an object, thus created for its artistic appeal (Ikegwu 2016, 10). It represents the skill of the craftsman in the detail of woodcarving and ironwork. Additionally, its placement within a research and teaching collection in UCL department of Anthropology's Ethnographic Collection makes it an object of scientific significance.

Its social context is somewhat controversial. There are those who wish to revive the traditional customs and replace the Ofo to its former position of respect, however there are also those who identify with the Christian community and view the Ofo as an instrument in a ‘fetish’ cult and should be eliminated entirely (Ibid, 9). It becomes an interest to both of these groups for very conflicting purposes, yet both must be acknowledged to appropriately identify conservation priorities.

Degradation of the Ofo. 

White pigment and mud loss from the surface of the Ofo, 

visiblecracking and splitting of the wood from low RH.
New storage mount constructed for the
covered with teflon to
limit abrasion
Active corrosion of iron visible through the iron prongs 
on the backside of the Ofo under magnification.
Its current condition can be attributed to poor handling and storage conditions during its life in the collection, only receiving a storage mount in March 2016 despite its acquisition in the 1950s.

The object suffers from surface loss, as the friable mud and white face decoration crumbles on physical contact. The iron is covered by a layer of red-brown rust formed by iron oxidation in the presence of moisture (Stuart 2007, 39). The acidic off-gas of wood is causing the active corrosion of the iron, only visible under magnification. Furthermore, the wood is splitting and shrinking. The iron bands wrapped at the top and bottom of the shaft are loose, and cracks in the wood are visible on the face and body of the Ofo. Low, or fluctuations of RH have caused the wood to dry out and display these characteristic signs of deterioration (Hunt 1992, 132).

Despite these issues of degradation the Ofo has survived well in its conditions. If the local environment does not suffer from fluctuation, it will continue to survive in its current sate. Thus the Ofo is a low conservation priority, as long as the environment remains stable, so will the object's condition.

*Images by the author unless otherwise noted.

Bentor, E. 1988. Life as an Artistic Process: Igbo Ikenga and Ofo. African Arts Vol. 21.2, 66-71.
Ejizu, CI. 1987. The Taxonomy, Provenance, and Functions of Ofo: A Dominant Igbo Ritual and Political Symbol. Anthropos Vol. 82.4/6, 457-467.
Hunt, VR. 1992. Composite Objects: Materials and Storage Conditions. In Bachmann, K. (ed.) Conservation Concerns, A Guide for Collectors and Curators. Smithsonian Institute Press: Washington DC, 129-133.
Ikegwu, JU. 2016. Ofo as a global cultural resource and its significance in Igbo culture area. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from World Wide Web:
Otubah, GI. 2015. Different Ritual symbols in Igbo Traditional Religion and their Functions. Journal of Religion and Human Relations Vol. 7.2, 169-177.
Stuart, BH. 2007. Analytical Techniques in Conservation Materials. John Wiley and Sons: Chichester.
British Museum. Retrieved 18 March 2016 from World Wide Web:

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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