Okenekene Restoration

Restoring African Tribal Art is always a tricky business. The interesting part is that more is not necessarily better with respect to older pieces but while there are varied perspectives, the final analysis comes down to the deterioration of the ‘authentic’ piece, and the addition of aesthetic features.

The Okenekene headdress lends itself to restoration for the following reasons:

  1. There are several removable component pieces (chameleon, python),
  2. The piece itself portrays an Okenekene narrative,
  3. The headdress showed signs of repeated use.

Front section of Okenekene showing existing wave abstraction but missing the ‘Fishing Dragon’.

The frontal area of the purchased piece shows the feet of the broken ‘fishing dragon’ and the missing ‘wave’.

I was fortunate to come across this piece at a Merton Simpson estate auction. I suspect the only reason I was able to acquire the piece was as a result of a rare computer glitch which left me as the only bidder on the floor. With some verbal prompting from my Mum the auctioneer acquiesced and closed the deal.

click photo for video link: OKENEKENE RESTORATION


In another of many related providential occurrences I had been gifted a book titled ‘Ways of the Rivers’ after purchasing pieces from the Alfred Prince collection. This book provided a lot of research on Okenekene headdresses, and my favorite Delta tribes (Urhobo, Ogoni, Ijo).

My luck had not run out since I was also able to have the restoration done (molding, carving, finishing) by the talented family Miller. It was a fantastic learning experience since the existing surface finish showed wonderful signs of ageing (crackling, alligatoring) and changed my perception on analyzing the quality of pieces forever.

2 Responses to Okenekene Restoration

  1. Ed says:

    Firstly, congratulations on this former ‘Mert Simpson’ acquisition! Okenekene masks are not easy to acquire, especially authentic ones. They are exceptional helmets of admixtures – quite unique stories to tell – about traditional, modern multi-cultural infusion, and certainly that from the Western worlds. I also have the book ‘Ways of the Rivers’, and it is indeed a very good resource publication on the subject

    I also watched snippets of the restoration process video – performed by the Millers – up-loaded to YouTube;

    1.. This is rather consistent with known repair techniques of ingenious Africans with the annual / semi-annual maintenance of their masks.
    2.. Yet, I am wondering “why” the high gloss polychrome paint was employed on the repair / replacement parts instead of natural pigments / milk paint whenever possible?? This is not intended to be a negative or critical question… Considering “restoration”, it is one I find puzzling, but widely assumed notion that Western polychrome paints were so commonly used — and they were not always…
    3.. Is the rest of the mask surface comprised of Western polychrome paint? I cannot determine, but judging from darkened-aged surface, [to me] it appears to have been originally painted with natural pigments of some sort. The use of glossy chemical polychrome paint would necessitate some sort of mixing-blending *compromise* of surface adhesions to balance the visceral age affect. That is in essence too much like “faking”, the very thing in which the renown Michael Angelo was known for, brandishing him (among others) as a pardoned criminal! Overall, I agree, restoration is indeed tricky business, yet, for intent and purposes, it appears to be a job well done.

    Anyways, this is another excellent post. Great job, and thanks for sharing.

    • Your points are all excellent – the gloss on the fishing dragon was maintained through examination of a similar piece as shown in the composite of typical Okenekene, and while natural pigments were expected there were multiple layers of finishes used over the years. There are improvements that can be made (specifically to ‘flattening’ the gloss) but the patina of the original components, along with the indications of replicated carving would require the input of Ijebu craftsmen. I can sleep more comfortably knowing the ‘restoration’ better speaks to the narrative of the piece – I feel fortunate to have it in my care for a short time and I hope to continue to do so in a responsible fashion…. this means accepting critique as necessary – back to the paint – I did read that prior to the 1960s colored ‘paint’ was restricted to several colors so that point is also well made.

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