Not Visible to the Naked Eye: Inside a Senufo Helmet Mask

Not Visible to the Naked Eye: Inside a Senufo Helmet Mask

ABOUT THE EXHIBITION

The DMA’s Conservation and Arts of Africa departments, in an exciting and cutting-edge collaboration with UT Southwestern Medical Center, will present CT scans of a Senufo helmet mask from the Museum’s African art collection. This kind of mask is worn like a helmet by a member of the Komo during initiations, funerals, harvest celebrations, and other events. The Komo are a highly secretive men’s-only society which has traditionally maintained social and spiritual harmony in Senufo villages.

The mask derives its power from the accumulated sacrificial offerings that make up the textured surface. Visible elements include prominent animal horns, glass, metal wire, and a figurine, but there are hidden components embedded in the object that are impossible to detect without technological assistance.

INSIDE THE HELMET MASK

In traditional African cultures, objects with encrusted surfaces have likely been instilled with great power and knowledge through ceremonial applications of soil and other organic materials. These surface additions make it difficult to discern the objects’ composition and structure. New technology allows us to see beneath the stiff encrustation. Analyzing its interior required a spectral CT scan, which differentiates materials according to their density.

Visible attachments on the mask include a female figure, cowrie shells, and imported glassware. The CT-scans reveal unexpected materials beneath the surface and objects contained in the attached animal horns that empower the mask. Conservators examined the helmet mask’s exterior using microscopy, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and vibrational spectroscopy (FT-IR). The CT scans also gave information about how the mask was carved and assembled.

In traditional African cultures, objects with encrusted surfaces have likely been instilled with great power and knowledge through ceremonial applications of soil and other organic materials. These surface additions make it difficult to discern the objects’ composition and structure. New technology allows us to see beneath the stiff encrustation. Analyzing its interior required a spectral CT scan, which differentiates materials according to their density.

Visible attachments on the mask include a female figure, cowrie shells, and imported glassware. The CT-scans reveal unexpected materials beneath the surface and objects contained in the attached animal horns that empower the mask. Conservators examined the helmet mask’s exterior using microscopy, X-ray fluorescence (XRF), and vibrational spectroscopy (FT-IR). The CT scans also gave information about how the mask was carved and assembled.

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A dynamic experience for visitors

– The New York Times