Concern over European treatment of Ife artworks
Nov 28, 2011
In preparation for a series of American museum tours entitled “Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria”, large and important parts of Nigeria's collection of Ife cultural objects were sent to the Instituto del Patrimonio Cultural de España (Spanish Heritage Conservation Institute) for conservation and the application of protective treatments.
Critics have expressed concerns over the effects of this treatment, suggesting that the Spanish conservators may have applied inappropriate techniques and coating intended to protect the sculptures during the tour, accidentally removing the ancient surface patina. The former deputy director of the National Museum in Lagos, John Picton, says that the ancient brass artworks have developed a “shiney surface”.
Most of the roughly 800 year old objects had never left Nigeria before, and although the Spanish Conservation Institute is widely respected, their experience with West African art objects was limited. The twenty or so brass heads and figures which have generated the most concern have had their wax coatings (applied at various times during the 20th century to protect against moisture) removed, which may have led to the loss of any original surface coverings, before being treated with the anti-corrosion agent Benzotriazole (BTA), which had the affect of making the metal appear shiney, especially under direct lighting. This was followed by the application of an acrylic dulling agent, Incralac. All conservation work was approved by Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, which owns the collection.
These artefacts represent important parts of Nigeria's history, tracing their origins from the Ife city-state, a rich and complex society which can trace its origins back as far as 560 BC, but which developed as an important centre of culture and art between 700 and 900 AD. The bronze and terracotta artworks produced are among some of the most remarkable of their kind, and some researchers theorise that the artists responsible went on to form Art Guilds, cultural schools of philosophy, which may well be some of the oldest non-Abrahamic centres of thought and learning in Africa, pre-dating many similar institutions in Europe.
This does not mean that the sculptures received appropriate care in Nigeria, however, where conservation and storage facilities are generally inadequate and underfunded. Part of the reason for the tour is to generate revenues to fund better conditions at home.
Critics have pointed out, however, that more consideration should have been given to the conditions the objects would encounter during the tour, and later during storage in the National Museum in Lagos.
The Nigerian director of museums, Mayo Adediran, has stressed that the measures are reversible, and that his department believes that the “best options” were taken, but that an investigation would be undertaken should any permanent damage have occurred.
The curator of the exhibition, Enid Schildkrout, does not believe that any damage has occurred, but raises an interesting point in the debate; that the intentions of the makers are difficult to gauge, leaving the question of taste in the air, which “raises the question of whose taste: that of the maker, the owner or viewer.”