Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- Standing less than one foot tall, this small wooden sculpture is a Loma woman whose torso is wrapped in burlap, concealing the zinc and manganese maskette (a small face mask) and cowrie shells inside her stomach.
- The Loma people live on the border of Liberia and Guinea in West Africa. Cowrie shells and maskettes are precious objects in Loma culture.
- Maskettes, or ma go, are small face masks that are carried for protection or as a status symbol. Cowrie shells were initially used as a form of currency in parts of Africa, but they are now used as ritual tools or decorative items.
- The origin of this figure was determined by its flat face, simply designed facial features, and intense brow bone, all of which are commonly featured on Loma masks. While masks are typically used in ritual performances or ceremonies, figural sculptures such as this one would have been used for personal protection or worship.
- The NCMA conservation team used X-ray and XRF (X-ray fluorescence) analysis to determine the sculpture’s elemental composition. They were surprised by the discovery of cowrie shells and a maskette hidden inside.
The Loma are a people who reside in Africa, on the border of Liberia and Guinea. This Loma figure seems unassuming at first glance, with its serene expression and oblong facial features. However, through X-ray and XRF analysis (X-ray fluorescence) used to determine the elemental composition, NCMA conservators discovered that this female figure holds more than the eye can see. A maskette, or small face mask, was found hidden within the figure’s belly, nestled behind neat rows of cowrie shells. The maskette contains high levels of zinc and manganese (rather than being made from wood). Zinc is a precious material used in trade in Liberia, and cowrie shells are a valuable commodity. This figure is literally pregnant with wealth and prosperity—what’s inside may be much more important than the figure itself!
The surface of the sculpture’s belly, which is loosely hidden by a piece of burlap, is covered with a buildup of mostly organic materials. These materials indicate medicinal or ritual applications that are commonly associated with artworks called “power objects.” Charged by ritual specialists, the power object would temporarily “work” for living individuals or for a specific purpose, such as protection or a cure.
Resources for Teachers:
- Watch a video about another sculpture with objects hidden inside.
- Read an article about X-ray fluorescence.
- Learn about the importance of cowrie shells in several African cultures.
Resources for Students: