Preserving African Art

Maintaining Collection Integrity

June 09, 2017 By: Adenike Cosgrove

Anne-Catherine Kenis grew up in a family of artists—painters Willhem Roelofs, Albert Roelofs, Albertine Deletaille, and her mother, Annette Deletaille. Between 1978 and 1986 Anne-Catherine was an assistant and restorer at her uncle’s gallery, Émile Deletaille. This early exposure to African art and antiques eventually led Anne-Catherine into a 30-year career in restoring and preserving classic African art. We speak to Anne-Catherine to learn what collectors can do to maintain the integrity of their African art objects.

Anne-Catherine Kenis
Conserver and restorer of classical archeology, African art, Pre-Columbian art, Asian art, and Oceanic art

Tell us about yourself. How did you get into the field of conservation and restoration of classic African art?

My mother, Annette Deletaille, was a painter and the descendant of many generations of Dutch artists (Willem & Albert Roelofs). In addition, my uncle, Émile Deletaille, owned an antiques and art gallery in the ‘60s, he was an expert in Pre-Columbian and African art. My parents were also close friends with preservation theorist Professor Paul Philippot. We were always surrounded by art and antiques.

As a child, I first discovered African art at the Royal Museum for Central Africa, in Tervuren, Belgium. I used to also visit my uncle’s gallery regularly and I had the opportunity to handle exceptional pieces of African and Pre-Columbian art. I immediately felt very attracted to these works of art.

The second time my interest in African art grew was after a trip to Africa. I travelled to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Algeria, and then to Mali with my mother in 1972-1973. This trip, I believe, started my career as a restorer of classic African art because in Mali, we bought our first Djenné terracotta figure. I believe that this was actually the first terracotta bought in Mali, even before all the Belgian dealers. Djenné pieces were not yet on the market at that time.

What experience have you had in restorations?

After that trip to Africa, between 1978 and 1986 I worked as an assistant and restorer at my uncle’s gallery in Brussels. I learned so much from him. He had amazing masterpieces from Africa, Indonesia and the Americas. Having access to his archeological material was such a great way to learn.

After working for my uncle for about nine years, I became an independent restorer, restoring and preserving objects for many great art dealers from all over the world. I have had the privilege to work for some of the greatest collectors of ancient art. They have given me their most beautiful and precious objects with the utmost confidence. Same thing with some the big museums such as Musée du Quai Branly, Musée du Louvre, and Musée Dapper in Paris, and University of Notre-Dame in the United States.

What is your field of expertise?

In the beginning it was just terracotta and earthenware objects. But soon after, I started handling, restoring and preserving stone, bronze, ivory and even wooden pieces. Our cooperative of young restorers now cover all fields and materials—we work together, learn together, and collaborate with each other to restore the most amazing pieces of African art.

I think this collaboration is so important in our field because individual restorers have done a lot of damage to historical pieces due to a lack of knowledge. The history of restoration is full of obsolete practices and techniques. Some of them have sometimes damaged pieces: excessive extrications (clearing/brushing off the surface), fantasist reconstitutions, mastic (putty) modifications using the wrong products to cover up the material of origin. Irreversible materials have been used, materials that degrade the original matter, the list is endless. Sometimes these past inadequate restoration are now part of the work’s history and we ought to take that into account, whether we like it or not. Nowadays, restorers are mostly focusing on finding solutions to rectify the errors from the past. By collaborating, we can avoid these detrimental mistakes and continue to save important pieces.

Anne-Catherine's studio

Can you discuss a few of the major high profile pieces you've restored?

There are countless objects that I have worked on that I really love and therefore feel connected to forever (almost like old friends). A bond was created between us through the restoration.

Notably the Ifé head that is on display at the Louvre, the tall scrawny Djenné man which is shown at the Museum of Bamako in Mali, and the sublime Lega mask that belongs to a private collection to which my mind often goes to. It might sound funny but I often wish I could ask them “how are you, old friends?”, there has been so many amazing sculptures. I realise today how incredibly lucky and privileged I am to have had the opportunity to live closely to so many works of art of that quality and historical intensity.

There are other objects that I unfortunately cannot speak to because the clients do not want it known that these pieces have been restored. I think that is a mistake. In the future, all important pieces will be studied or will be in museums and at that point, all will be known.

"For me the most important thing is to give a piece back its beauty, to give it new life—more life."

Djenné terracotta restored by Anne-Catherine Kenis
Djenné terracotta restored by Anne-Catherine Kenis

You specialise in terracottas, what steps do you take to preserve terracotta objects?

In restoration, the first thing we need to pay attention to ‘preventative conservation’. Some objects have problems of ageing, animal damage, or in the case of earthenware, older figures and sculptures degrade and start to crumble into dust. Classic African art is fragile, so we must first care for that fragility. Only then do we apply glue or other binding materials to restore pieces back to their former glory—the curative maintenance stage. But even in this case, it’s important that whatever enhancements we make to an object must be reversible, even 20 years down the line. Another important element of restoration is increasing an object’s resistance to ageing. This is where we actually restore the object, fix any fractures, and enhance the piece.

Now, the unique thing about terracotta objects is that they are typically archaeological. In Africa, a lot of terracotta objects were excavated from the ground in fragments. In addition, when many of these pieces were dug up, there were no official programs or guidelines on the best practices in excavating and preserving these pieces. So, as a restorer of terracotta pieces, a lot of my work is like a jigsaw puzzle, piecing fragments back together again.

What do you consider to be a great terracotta African art object?

Unfortunately it’s not in the public domain, nobody knows that piece, not yet anyway so it’s impossible for me to share it now. I hope maybe one day the time will come when we can speak about it freely.

I worked with Jacques Kerchache to preserve terracottas from Nigeria for the launch of the Quai Branly. I think terracotta objects from Nigeria are the most important in Africa. They speak to the beauty, creativity and craftsmanship of classic African art.

Large Nok head fragment restored by Anne-Catherine Kenis

What steps should collectors take to restore and then preserve their African art pieces?

Ivory is the most delicate to preserve—its very fragile and can easily be altered by salt and compression. The important thing for ivory, and also for wood, is to keep these objects in the same constant atmosphere, one without too much humidity. It’s not good for wood, in winter, to be in the heat of a radiator and then in summer, to be near an open window for example. Even better, keep these objects in a glass box if possible. Do not clean wooden objects with grease, shea butter or palm oil! I’ve seen some collectors do this. Gently dusting objects with a feather duster or a soft brush will suffice. Even simply blowing air on the piece will do. But never use any greasy products or wax, better to leave the object alone in its filthy state!

Humidity and grease are bad for bronze objects. When cleaning metal objects, clean them very carefully and softly. When we clean bronze, we put a thin coat of paraloid resin, like an acrylic dissolved in ethanol, to isolate the surface and to maintain the object’s longevity.

Terracotta has no real conservation problems because it’s like stone. However, where glue has been used to piece together the object, it’s best to avoid direct sunlight as too much heat is not good for the glue.

What advice do you have for collectors that buy African art? What should they look for in a surface / patina?

African art objects were in use during their time and in their culture. They had a life of their own before being gathered and scattered around the world. This traditional use and function is what gave them this patina. Each object has its authentic and specific patina. After which, the object is passed on from the archeologist to the dealer then to the collector where it will finally sit on a pedestal.

Not every object is kept in a favourable environment for its preservation. Some of the objects are sometimes ‘enhanced’ by carefree owners and fraudulent dealers. They consequently suffer from bad manipulations and treatments sometimes disastrous and irreversible.

"An acute and expert observing eye and knowledge are the first requirements for the art lover!"

So first, every collector must see a lot of objects. Go to museums, look at books, learn and study similar pieces. You must know the culture and know what this piece was used for in its original context. When looking at the work, give special attention to the stylistic corpus, the material, its surface, the marks of erosion and age (manganese oxide in archaeological terms), and of course do the scientific tests (thermo-luminescence, scanner, metallography). With that knowledge you will have a good idea if the patina is ok or not. If a piece is too shiny, or too clean then better to have a little suspicion because there are so many fakes now on the market… so many. Fakes are more abundant and well done. Sometimes entire collections can be made up of counterfeits unfortunately. But in my opinion there aren’t any perfect fakes yet.

Best thing is to ask, ask, and ask some more. Ask restorers about the pieces you are interested in. We have a lot of knowledge about objects and patina because we’ve seen and handled a lot of objects. We can also use products to test if an object is normal or not, if it’s been restored or not, if it’s in good condition or not. When an experienced restorer who has had hundreds of pieces in his/her hands looks at a fake, he/she can identify it as an imitation or fake pretty confidently.

Finally, deal with good dealers, they are responsible for their objects. If you have suspicions about an object, they will give you your money back or offer up a similar object.

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