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Tuesday 22 November 2016

Repairing damaged African sculptures, made from wood which has been made to look like ebony

Occasionally I'm asked to repair or restore a damaged sculpture. They have needed repair due to a range of reasons, ranging from wear-and-tear to having been knocked over by someone's mother-in-law!

These two racing male cheetahs, 90 cm (3 feet) long, were carved in Tanzania and had been damaged in transit to the UK. Although the wood looks superficially similar to ebony, it is actually another kind of timber (probably Ironwood [Olea capensis] or Bleedwood [Pterocarpus angolensis]) that has had a dark stain and then black shoe polish applied. This darkening really brings out the form of the sculpture, as it reduces the visual impact of the timber's grain. 

Since both of these are a fairly widespread and common trees in Tanzania, I must admit to being happy that a different wood has been used to make this sculpture instead of ebony. Genuine African ebony trees (Diospyros crassiflora) are not native to this area, as well as being much scarcer and threatened by over-exploitation, so it was good to see a Tanzanian sculptor using what I believe to be local timber.

The tail of one cheetah was almost completely broken off and there were a couple of other nasty breaks as well. 

I really enjoy studying the sculptures to be repaired to see how they have been made by the carver who created them, so that the repair can echo their work as closely as possible.  

Some might be surprised to find out that these cheetahs were constructed from at least ten different pieces of wood, carefully jointed and then held together by nails. This actually has more than one benefit. It means that the carver wastes less timber than if the whole sculpture was carved from a single piece of wood. It also means that the grain runs along each leg and tail, so making them stronger and less likely to break across the grain.

The joins between pieces of wood were also filled with some kind of pitch or resin, which has been modelled in places to follow the shape of the carving. It was interesting to see this, as I've found the technique used in other sculptures from East Africa too.

To repair the piece, I carefully fixed the broken pieces together, with an internal supporting rod if necessary, then filled the remaining gaps with a paste made from wood dust mixed into a resin compound. 

This was left overnight and then any remaining holes or gaps filled with the same mixture. When it was all filled and set, the repair was very carefully sanded smooth and then polished with black wax polish.

It's quite a time-consuming and fiddly job, as the resin must set fully between each application. After the work was finished though, it was great to finally see the sculpture restored back to its former glory. The sense of movement and energy is very well portrayed, which I think is one of the hardest things to get across when removing material to shape a carving.

You may also like to see this previous commission to repair a damaged sculpture by the renowned Zambian sculptor, Friday Tembo. The owners were personal friends of Mr. Tembo, who had since passed away, so this repair was even more important to them. When it arrived at my workshop, the piece looked like this:

It shows a shaman in the act of transforming between the form of a fish and that of a man. The repair took a while, but it was interesting to use this process to study in more depth how this unusual artwork had been made and the techniques that had been used.

Again there was a real sense of satisfaction in restoring the piece, which was heightened by knowing who the sculptor was and how important this sculpture was to its owners.