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Reviewed by:
  • Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture
  • Mary Jo Arnoldi
Leonard Kahan, Donna Page, and Pascal Imperato, eds. Surfaces: Color, Substances, and Ritual Applications on African Sculpture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. 536 pp. 122 Color Photographs. Bibliography. Index. $75.00. Cloth.

Surfaces was inspired by an exhibition by the same name that was curated by the authors for the African Art Museum of the SMA Fathers in Tenafly, New Jersey, in 2004. In the book the authors assert that the surfaces of African sculptures, like their forms, are imbued with important cultural meanings and that these surfaces require detailed study. The volume includes seven chapters that investigate a variety of materials and artistic practices used to decorate, embellish, and treat the surfaces of wood sculpture. Each draws our attention to the ways that surfaces may be intentionally or unintentionally altered over the lifetime of an object. As they are altered, the sculptures accrue additional meanings and their alterations often provoke intense aesthetic responses.

The first five chapters constitute the book's argument for a more robust study of surfaces in African art. The first two essays, a historical essay on embellishments written by Kahan, a curator of African art, and an essay on the materials by Page, a museum conservator, establish the framework for the book. These two essays use examples from throughout the continent, drawing from a wide array of published sources from quite different time periods. The three case studies that follow—Imperato on Bamana sculpture, Bordogna on Yoruba ibeji, and Campbell on Yoruba orisa—narrow the focus as each of these authors investigates the particularities and nuances of the relationship among surface embellishments, aesthetic systems, local belief systems, and meaning in the making and use of objects among the Bamana and Yoruba, respectively. Collectively the five essays argue persuasively that by attending to objects' surfaces, we open ourselves up to thinking about African sculpture in new and more comprehensive ways.

The final two chapters engage larger issues in material science, and along with the two appendixes, they constitute an invaluable reference guide. Kahan's essay, delineating the various surface markings and conditions of wood objects, and Page's essay, listing the various substances [End Page 221] applied to objects, are especially useful for museum curators and conservators who are regularly engaged in describing, cataloguing, and treating African sculptures. These authors' careful and detailed approach to objects is also a useful framework for directed looking. The book's two appendixes are especially invaluable. They are both presented as tables and the information is easy to access. The first appendix, "Pigments, Dyes and Material Applications," is organized by country and then by ethnic group. Materials are listed for each group and local names for materials are given when known and are cross-listed with published works. The appendix "Wood" is organized by ethnic group. Within each group woods are identified by their scientific names and then paired with a list of objects carved from that type of wood. Included in each list are references to published works.

Surfaces is beautifully designed and illustrated with more than 122 color photographs, thus its rather steep price. Many of the objects that are illustrated in the book were in the original Surfaces exhibition. Each chapter includes several color photographs of objects, as well as color and black and white photographs of similar types of objects in use in Africa. In the center of the book there is a discrete section entitled "The Gallery" which includes sixty objects, one per page. Every object that is illustrated in the book has an extended legend that gives essential information about the object's use and the various materials and substances that embellish its surface. This volume has something for everyone interested in African art. It includes a series of scholarly essays with extensive bibliographies, a gallery of objects, and a valuable guide to local materials and substances. It will be a welcome addition in the academy and in museums, and it will certainly be of interest to collectors and enthusiasts of African art. [End Page 222]

Mary Jo Arnoldi
Smithsonian Institution
Washington, D.C.


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