From the Figge Front: Unpacking African

Last Thursday at work was like Christmas morning! We’ve been receiving packages of all shapes and sizes from David Riep, who is field collecting for us in South Africa (see the article about David in the UIMA’s Summer 2009 Magazine). They have been waiting to be opened for months, and other new African acquisitions have been waiting even longer: a few objects were purchased just before the 2008 Flood and were sent directly to our Chicago storage, so they’ve been packed up for over a year. Last Thursday we welcomed all of these objects to their new temporary home at the Figge!
From Left to right: UIMA Registrarial Assistant Whitney Day , Preparator Steve Erickson,
and Registrar Jeff Martin work to unpack African objects at the Figge.

We unpacked the objects and assigned them all numbers, and then we photographed them against a white background. Most of the objects go together to create beautifully beaded and embroidered outfits, many used for initiation ceremonies or religious rituals. (I almost asked if I could model some of the outfits but decided that might not be the best practice in art handling.) Some of the objects (like the above apron) were made from animal skins, so we repacked them in paper and then plastic bags and placed them in a freezer for a few weeks, to make sure that no bugs hitched a ride from South Africa. We located the rest of the objects to shelves in storage at the Figge.

My favorite pieces were the initiation staffs.
New staffs like this are given to male initiates, usually from their maternal uncle. Each stick must cure for one year before being decorated, due to the type of wood used. This kind of wood shrinks while it dries, and it must do so before the decorative wire is added so the wire doesn’t fall off the shaft. The colorful designs are made from telephone wire, which is commonly used for sticks like this.

Formerly, sticks were carved with fancy tops, but this went out of fashion by the 1940s. This artistic shift is a reflection of cultural changes: beginning in the 1940s, Africans needed to take up migrant work in the cities and those who became night watchmen began using surplus materials to make new traditional objects, such as these coiled sticks. These staffs function in a variety of ways: for walking, fighting, and shepherding, in addition to serving as a status symbol. Very cool! I wonder how difficult it would be to make my own…

We anticipate receiving another shipment from David on Thursday, said to include more outfits and some ceramic vessels (aka, beer cups), which we hope will arrive undamaged after their long journey. Update to follow!

--Melissa Hueting, UIMA Assistant to the Director for Special Programs and Curatorial Assistant

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