Behind the Dust: Conservation of a Gitenga Mask

When the Gitenga Mask (Fig. 1 and 2) came to the conservation lab for treatment it caused great excitement.  It was impressive in size at 33 ½ x 35 ½ x 19 inches, and had great presence.

Fig 1 and 2 Before Treatment. Photos of the Gitenga Mask by Senior Photographer Mitro Hood.

As one took a closer look it became apparent that the majority of the feathers, especially in the back, were deformed and covered in layers of dust (Fig. 3 and 4) and insect remains. Some feathers were bent, broken, and in many cases the “tip” (rachis and barbs) was missing especially around the base on the back and left-hand side. It was a very intimidating treatment prospect and one that would take hundreds of hours to complete. When the exhibition date was set for the fall of 2017, there was no turning back.

Fig 3 and Fig 4 Lab photographs showing the dust and deformed feathers.

Below are some of the interesting discoveries that emerged before and during the conservation treatment of this remarkable object.

The slow removal of the dust on the back of the mask revealed layers of striking blue feathers as seen in the lab photograph taken during treatment (Fig. 5). Kevin Tervala, Associate Curator of African Art, researched the various birds that exist in the Pende region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where the mask originates, and discovered that the feathers are from the Great Blue Turaco Bird (Fig. 6).

Fig 5 A lab photograph of the back of the Gitenga Mask during treatment.

Fig 6 A Great Blue Turaco Bird.

The clever way the feathers were attached to the mask during its construction is illustrated in the photograph below. The feather “base” (calamus or hollow shaft) was bent and inserted into a woven twine support (Fig. 7). A second piece of twine was passed through the bent bases of several feathers to create a “string” of feathers. The “strings” of feathers were then sewn onto the fabric head cap in layers (Fig. 8).

Fig 7 and 8 Interior photographs illustrating how the strings of feathers were attached to the head cap.

The beautiful neckline of the mask and a section of the back (Fig. 9 and 10) also illustrates the method in which the feathers are secured to the head cap. Notice all the missing feather “tips!”

Fig 9 and 10 Lab photographs of the neckline and a back section of the mask before treatment.

Fig 11 Preening the feathers one at a time.

Fig 12 and 13 After Treatment. Photos of the Gitenga Mask by Senior Photographer Mitro Hood.

One of the most satisfying discoveries a conservator can make is finding old repairs. In this case I wasn’t disappointed. Someone had carefully taken the top (vane) of a broken feather and adhered it to the remaining base (calamus or hollow shaft) of another broken feather that was missing its tip (rachis and barbs). So, this was not the first conservation treatment campaign for the mask, and will certainly not be the last.

Please note that in the case of ethnographic works with organic parts, it’s important to determine if there’s any evidence the piece has been treated with pesticides, some of which containe heavy metals (e.g. mercury) which can pose health risks. This was done in good faith by museums and collectors in the past to try and stop insect infestations.  In the case of this mask, there was no visual evidence of pesticide use. We are fortunate at the BMA to have a handheld Bruker X-Ray Fluorescence spectrometer (XRF), which can detect heavy metals. The XRF readings at the various sampling locations supported the visual observation that there were no heavy metals present.

A conservation treatment like the one of this Gitenga mask involves more than just the objects conservator. Shannen Hill, former BMA Associate Curator of African Art, encouraged me to take this treatment on and Kevin Tervala, BMA Associate Curator of African Art, encouraged me to finish it. Local objects conservators Angie Elliot, Diane Fullick, and Lara Kaplan, gave me valuable input along the way. Objects conservator Cheryl Podsiki, known for her work with handheld XRF pesticide analysis of ethnographic objects, was also a valuable resource. Senior photographer Mitro Hood and the BMA installation team helped show the mask to its best advantage, and the BMA conservation members were cheerleaders throughout the treatment. Many thanks to all!

The mask is on view in Beyond Flight: Birds in African Art through June 17, 2018.

 

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