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Congolese textile Shoowa/Kuba 1950 by Christian Doux

Conservators at the Brooklyn Museum examined and analyzed the fabric in this egúngún masquerade dance costume before going on display in One: Egúngún. This type of costume is found throughout the Ọ̀yọ́ region of southwestern Nigeria. When worn, the costume conceals the wearer to embody the spirit of the ancestral dead and transform the wearer into a returned ancestor. A long wooden beam, which rests on top of the wearer’s head, is draped with many textile panels suspended in layers.

This costume’s densely layered textile panels are incredibly varied. They include both natural and synthetic fibers, hand-woven and factory-made weave structures, many dyed colors and printed patterns, and a number of metal appliques. The natural fibers, such as cotton and wool, are primarily found on the inner layers. The synthetic fibers, located mostly on the outer layers, include patterns of velvet and faux fur in bright colors.

Recent research has demonstrated that this costume was made sometime between 1920 and 1948. The curator wondered if any of the synthetic textile panels might be recent replacements or additions made with newer materials that didn’t yet exist at the time of manufacture.

Conservators at the museum identified the fibers using Polarizing Light Microscopy (PLM), a contrast-enhancing technique used to investigate optical properties of samples. PLM uses polarizing filters to configure the movement of light waves, forcing them to vibrate in a single direction. The polarized light interacts with the sample in specific ways depending on the material, which allows for identification.

We took samples of the different synthetic fibers and examined each of them under a polarizing light microscope, looking for defining characteristics such as shape and form, or how the fibers refract light. In the image below, showing fiber samples from this costume, you can see that acetate fibers appear yellow when oriented in one direction and blue when oriented in the opposite direction.

All of the velvets and faux fur we sampled turned out to be a combination of natural silk and synthetic viscose rayon and acetate. Both of these synthetic fibers were already in use in the early 20th century, which means these textile panels could be original. This information lets us better understand the piece, its history, and the conditions in which it was made and used.

The egúngún masquerade dance costume will be displayed in One: Egúngún through August 18 so make sure to see it in person!

Posted by Chantal Stein