Today’s post will discuss a fairly challenging treatment of a 7′ tall African sculpture. The sculpture is titled “A Reflection,” and was carved by the artist Tangawizi of the Makonde tribe in northeastern Mozambique sometime in the late 1960’ s-1970’s. “A Reflection” is made out of a single log of ebony that has been intricately carved and highly polished.
The Makonde are a group located on the plateau of Mueda in modern day Tanzania and Mozambique. These were some of the last tribes to be placed under European colonial control, coming under Portuguese rule in 1920. Prior to European contact, the Makonde made masks and other useful items. Post-contact, the Makonde began creating prau-preto (ebony) sculptures for export to the Portuguese. The first subjects were the everyday activities of the Makonde; these became known as binadamu sculptures. Later, as woodcarving developed as a craft, styles expanded to include ujamaa or unity sculptures that depict families in a pole format, and shetani or spirit sculptures that are more abstract in their subject matter.
The Makonde sculpture that came to our studio is of the shetani genre. The work depicts a battle between a man and a tree spirit. The artist states that, ”the sharp pointed areas are a cunning feature as it does not reflect on the spirit but on what it wants us to believe; this spirit has a hidden agenda.”
The Makonde sculpture was broken into twelve sections with numerous other partial breaks, for a grand total of 31 breaks in need of joining. What made the repair difficult was that the wood had become distorted upon breaking, and the broken sections were no longer in proper alignment.
Unusually, this sculpture came with annotated repair instructions from the gallery in Kenya where it was purchased. The instructions suggest using a mix of ebony powder with a wood glue to rejoin the broken pieces. Our technician Katy modified this method to address the different kinds of breaks. Common “wood glue” is strong, but is difficult to reverse and does not age that well, so it is not an ideal conservation adhesive.
For most of the breaks, Katy used a high-tack fish glue to join the broken sections. These breaks all had large surface areas with good contact at the break sites and were non-load bearing. Fish glue is strong, reversible and easily re-treatable, making it an adhesive well-suited to this situation.
A stronger adhesive was needed for some of the breaks, though. These breaks were tricky because they were previously held under tension when the sculpture was whole, load-bearing, and have very little areas of contact. When the sculpture broke, the internal tensions were released and the somewhat flexible ebony underwent some distortion, or became “sprung” (a term usually used to describe this phenomenon when it applies to high-fired ceramics). In these cases, a two-part flexible epoxy adhesive bulked with ground ebony powder and pigments was used instead of the fish glue because it is stronger and more resilient.
We had to come up with some creative clamping solutions. In some areas, cauls were needed to prevent the clamps from slipping on the smooth, rounded surfaces.
In addition to the epoxy, carbon fiber pins were inserted into some of the breaks (namely, in load-bearing, previously repaired and re-broken areas, where the broken sections had to be forced back into alignment) to further support the piece structurally. The instructions suggest ebony dowels inserted to act as “screws” or “nails”; however, we felt that carbon fiber rods would be stronger, more flexible and less invasive since they required much smaller holes to be drilled, thus more appropriate for the narrow joins we were working with.
The losses along the break lines were filled using a microcrystalline wax blend that was tinted with dry pigments to approximate the color and sheen on the surrounding areas. The wax mixture was applied using a heated spatula. Finally the entire surface was given a light coating of clear paste wax for protection and unified gloss.
Zachary Kingdon. A Host of Devils. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2013.
Rich, Vincent (2012) Carving a Life: The Political Economy of Woodcarver Livelihoods in Cabo
Delgado, Northern Mozambique. PhD Thesis, SOAS, University of London