Museum curators and conservators often work in opposition: one vociferously advocating for open display of arts without cases for as long as possible; the other prioritizing preservation and taking the most conservative approach for the technique and duration of displaying the object. But working collaboratively can yield some thrilling results, as we recently discovered.
Standing with bent knees and arms held close to its sides, this figure has the oblong features typical of Loma artworks, and its expression appears serene. Its belly is concealed with a loosely tied cloth. But what lies beneath? Loma artist, Liberia, Standing Female Figure (front and side views), early 20th century, wood, burlap, iron, zinc, manganese, and cowry shells, Gift of Benita Baird and Ron Barab
In late 2018 the NCMA was generously gifted a collection of artworks from Liberia and Sierra Leone by Benita Baird and Ron Barab of Atlanta, Georgia. Baird inherited the works, collected by her father primarily in Liberia during the 1960s. Among the stunning artworks was this Loma figure, which appeared straightforward and unassuming. Yet upon closer inspection, we saw that it held much more.
We noticed that the loosely draped burlap cloth hid what appeared to be a pregnant belly. Further, this belly was covered with a surface of accretions that indicated medicinal or ritual applications—often associated with artworks commonly called “power objects.” Such objects tend to be containers or have cavities in the head or belly that hold various organic and sometimes inorganic ingredients. Charged by ritual specialists, they are thought to become temporarily inhabited by life’s energy or the spirit of a deceased individual to act on the behalf of the living. The ingredients are determined in collaboration with the individual commissioning the object and are known only to the ailing and the practitioner or diviner. They temporarily ”work” for living individuals and for a specific purpose, such as to cure or protect. The protruding stomach on this figure is formed of organic material that extends out from the carved wooden figure. The surface of the belly is rough, granular, and muddy orange-brown in color with small white inclusions.
Standing with bent knees and arms held stock still and close to its sides, this figure has the oblong features typical of Loma artworks, and its expression appears serene. Its belly is concealed with a loosely tied cloth. But what lies beneath? NCMA conservator Noelle Ocon x-rayed the figure and discovered something quite intriguing and exciting.
NCMA conservators x-rayed the figure and discovered something quite intriguing.
Buried within the belly is a Loma-style maskette (small mask). It has a protruding jaw; a jutting, triangular nose; and a rounded forehead. This maskette is placed in a cavity carved into the wooden figure. Significantly there are 26 cowries in front of it, laid out in neat rows. These cowry shells are held in the organic material mounded over the cavity. The white appearance of the maskette in the x-ray image suggests it’s made of metal. This piqued our attention because it’s atypical of these mininiature masks.
Further examining the x-ray, we discovered a second cavity at the center back of the figure that cannot be seen on the outside of the artifact. The second cavity appears to contain additional unidentified material (possibly textile). Further x-ray fluorescence analysis confirmed that the material inside the belly is metal, specifically zinc and manganese, and the nails embedded in the head and used for the eyes are iron.
An x-ray fluorescence report on the belly of the Loma figure shows high levels of zinc and manganese.
In Liberia zinc is a precious material used in trade (because it created stronger alloys for bronze), and cowries are a known and valuable commodity. This figure is "pregnant" with wealth and prosperity. Further, according to scholar Christian K. Hojbjerg, “the Loma seem to consider the miniature masks as the 'real' ones and the big masks as existing mainly for public use. A mask wearer never fails to carry his miniature [mask] under his left arm while performing with the larger version." So the little mask inside this figure may be much more important than the figure itself!
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