Tuesday, 29 May 2018

Object Assessment: Mma nwuli from the Igbo culture of Southeastern Nigeria

Object J.0096 (Figure 1) consists of two iron knives (mma nwuli), used by Igbo women of southeastern Nigeria to paint uli designs on other women or on walls (Jeffreys, 1956; Willis, 1989). The knives are small (4.5 cm long and 0.5 cm wide), dull, and somewhat corroded (Figure 2), although their condition is stable. The knives are identical in shape and design, both with an upward curving blade and an anticlockwise spiral pattern on the handle, and nearly identical in dimensions although one knife (J.0096A) is slightly thicker (and heavier) than the other (J.0096B).

Figure 1: J.0096 (a) front and (b) reverse. In both photos J.0096A is on the left and J.0096 B is on the right.

Figure 2: Close-up of corrosion on (a) J.0096A and (b) J.0096B.

These knives were collected by M. D. W. Jeffreys in Nigeria and became a part of the Wellcome non-medical collection (Jeffreys, 1956). This collection was acquired for UCL in the 1940s by Darryl Forde (UCL Ethnography Collections, 2018), and J.0096 has remained a part of this teaching and handling collection since then. Jeffreys likely collected these mma nwuli because they represent uli painting, an important part of Igbo cultural practices. An example of an Igbo girl being painting with uli is seen in Figure 3. The greatest significance these knives have is their social significance to the Igbo people.

Figure 3: Application of uli with mma nwuli to the face and torso of a young Igbo girl. "A girl is painting with uli patterns. Ugbene, 1983" (From Willis, 1989).

Uli tattoos are painted by well-respected women (Omenka) who are endowed with their painting ability by the earth goddess Ala (Willis, 1989). Typical recipients of the Omenka's paintings are young women, often painted with uli before marriage, childbirth, or other important life events (Willis, 1989; Utoh-Ezeajugh, 2009; Sanders, 2010). Ala herself is associated with things that are "natural," "normal" or "good," including birth, life, and beauty (Willis, 1989; Sanders, 2010; Onwuakpa, 2016). Being painted with uli before an important life event is a signal to other members of the community that a woman is beautiful, youthful, normal, healthy, and a good potential wife or mother. Some examples of typical uli patterns can be seen in Figure 4.

Figure 4: Some typical uli designs (From Willis, 1989).

To preserve the importance of these mma nwuli as a representation of traditional Igbo body painting, a practice which has been on the decline in recent decades (Sanders, 2010), conservation treatment should focus on preventing damage from occurring to these objects. The knives are, other than some corrosion, which itself is not active, in good condition and require only minimal preventive conservation. Proper handling procedures, maintenance of stable (non-fluctuating) environmental conditions, re-housing, and light dusting with a fine brush to remove surface dust is the proposed treatment for J.0096 to preserve their current stable condition (Canadian Conservation Institute, 2007).


Canadian Conservation Institute. 2007. Care and cleaning of iron. CCI Notes 9/6, 1-4.

Jeffreys, M. 1956. Negro abstract art or Ibo body patterns. South African Museums Association Bulletin 6(9), 93-111.

Onwuakpa, S. 2016. Visuality and representation in traditional Igbo uli body and mud wall paintings. African Research Review 10(2), 345-356.

Sanders, R. R. 2010. A phenomenology of uli as a communication expression in four Nigerian villages: Exploring its motifs, practitioners, and endangerment. PhD thesis, Robert Morris University Pittsburgh, PA.

UCL Ethnography Collections. 2018. The UCL Ethnography Collections. [Online]. [Accessed 22 March 2018]. Available from: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/ucl-ethnography/ucl-ethnography-collecitons

Utoh-Ezeajugh, T. 2009. Body adornment practises in Nigerian culture: A multi-ethnic investigation. Creative Artist: A Journal of Theatre and Media Studies 2(1), 117-132.

Willis, L. 1989. Uli painting and the Igbo world view. African Arts 23(1), 62-67+104.

This post refers to coursework done for ARCLG142 (2017-18), 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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