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The patinas on the tribal pieces (2) by Jean-Claude Herrera-Guttierez


The shiny patinas occur as a result of repeated rubbing with fats (palm oil), sweat and of course dirt. The intensity and frequency of the rituals can produce quite surprising results.

The most flattering are the reddish-brown patinas that Africans call "telephone patina", which is related to the patina that used to be found on bakelite telephones after intensive use.

Patinas caused by wear and tear lead, of course, to a slight colouring of the wood, but also to a fading or even a partial disappearance of the sculpture.

This is the case of the small statuettes representing twins found in Ghana or Togo among the Ewe or in Benin and Nigeria among the Yoruba (famous under the name of Ibedji which means twins).

As receptacles of the soul of the deceased twin, the Ibedji are the object of an intense cult. This consists in treating them as living twins. It is therefore fed, washed and coated with palm oil coloured with red vegetable oil. The mother's fervour in this practice leads to wear and tear due to the abrasive aspect of this food applied to the face by rubbing. These often end up completely erasing all the features of the face. All of this is much more complex and we are still only at a very schematic level.

Composition and various supports for patinas

The composition of these patinas is as complex and varied as the number of rites. One encounters smoke soot, foodstuffs (palm oil, shea butter, millet porridge: libélé among the Dogons, which has a cracked grey-black appearance), blood (sacrifices), animal excrement (bovine, poultry), entrails, colouring agents of vegetable origin (root) or mineral origin (earth, oxide, red kaolin: ngula or tukula, named after a village). But let's not forget above all that dirt is one of the most important elements.

The most common support for these patinas is undoubtedly wood, whose structure lends itself perfectly to the attachment of the various materials. Because of its density, its surface easily shines and becomes more beautiful with use and time. But metals (iron, bronze), terracotta, leather, stone, shells, fabrics, feathers, basketry are all subject to patina in their uses. Bones were particularly prized in tribal societies and were also the medium of incredibly elaborate and impressive patinas.


The patina, or lack of it, reflects the ritual or domestic use of a piece. It reflects the intensity of the fervour that has been devoted to it over time. It also contributes to its aesthetics, but should never mask its weaknesses, as is often the case with poor quality copies. A very thick and black patina is not necessarily synonymous with age. The usual domestic pieces acquire very quickly intense patinas, sometimes of the most beautiful effect. It is undeniable that the patina is the first element of seduction and that a good piece that is almost devoid of it by its very nature will only attract the most discerning eyes.

Shiny patinas occur as a result of repeated rubbing combined with fats (palm oil), sweat and of course dirt. The intensity and frequency of the rituals can lead to quite surprising results.

Read the first article on the theme: the patinas on tribal pieces (1)

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