Surfaces Seen and Unseen: African Art at Princeton examines how ornamental and ritual additions to the evolving surfaces of African sculptures alter an object’s appearance and power over the course of its lifetime. The exhibition also showcases the Museum’s growing African collection and loans from private collections.
African artists tended to define the underlying form of a work but over many years, a range of users or ritual experts could intervene to renew its surface. In some examples, substances such as earth, oils, or grains applied to a sculpture during ritual offerings activated the form for power or healing and, in the process, transformed the object’s patina. Other objects were empowered over time as ritual experts attached materials, including feathers, fabrics, and mirrors. Surface colors changed when masks were repainted for subsequent performances.
As the works reached the West, however, dealers of African art often removed these layers of surface, shaping a different (and arguably false) understanding of African art. More recently, however, the complexity of objects’ surface accumulations have come to be appreciated as bearers of cultural and aesthetic value, displaying layers of color, encrustation, or attachments and thus of artistic and cultural intervention.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website