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Conserving Hermes Trigmegistus & African Rainbow

By Julie L. McGee, Curator of African American Art, University Museums and Associate Professor, Black American Studies, University of Delaware; Jessica Silverman, Senior Paper Conservator & Preservation Consultant, Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA); Amy Heuer, Communications Coordinator, Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA)

THE ARTIST

 

Amos Ashanti Johnson (American, born 1950) is a South Carolina graphic artist, painter, and printmaker. He studied at Syracuse University and modeled his art after that of Charles White (American, 1918–1979), a noted African American artist and educator. Johnson assumed the Ashanti name to acknowledge his strong personal association with the Ashanti (or Asante) people of Ghana. His art celebrates African and Black American cultural heritages in its iconography and aesthetics. Johnson’s paintings, pastels and drawings, exhibit meticulous draftsmanship, are dominantly figurative and include commemorative or symbolic portraiture.

 

 

THE GIFT

 

The Paul R. Jones gift of African American art to the University of Delaware includes numerous works by Amos Ashanti Johnson, inclusive of paintings and works on paper.

 

Amos Ashanti Johnson, African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus, 1977, Mechanical Hall Gallery.
Amos Ashanti Johnson, African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus, 1977, Mechanical Hall Gallery.

 

Hermes Trigmegistus and African Rainbow, pastels of exceptional size (47 ½ x 95 ½ in. and 47 ½ x 84 ¾ in. respectively), showcase Johnson’s expressive use of Afrocentric iconography and record the artist’s interest in cosmic universals. African Rainbow includes the profile of the artist’s face on the left hand side of the composition. According to Johnson, he completed three pastels of this size, all related; the third (location unknown) is titled Womb of Life. A drawing associated with Hermes Trigmegistus, titled Sister Senufo, is in the Paul R. Jones Collection of American Art at the University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa.

 

HERMES TRIGMEGISTUS

 

Hermes Trismegistus [sic] is considered the author of the Hermetic Corpus, a series of sacred texts that are the basis of Hermeticism. Johnson’s composition may be inspired by The Divine Pymander of Hermes Mercurius Trismegistus, one of the earliest of the Hermetic writings now extant. Hermes Trismegistus—or Thrice Great—is a syncretic combination of the Greek god Hermes and the Egyptian god Thoth. A messenger of the gods, Hermes is equated with Mercury, the planet closest to the sun. The constantly shifting, shimmering yet sharp qualities of the archetype are forcefully captured in Johnson’s centrifugal image. A new archetype associated with astrological texts, occult arts including alchemy, hieroglyphics and calendar keeping, Hermes Trismegistus is also a psychopomp—a guider of souls in the afterlife.

 

Amos Ashanti Johnson, Hermes Trigmegistus, 1977. Pastel on paper. 47 ½ x 95 ½ in. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums. © Artist or artist’s estate. Generous in-kind support of Optium Museum Acrylic for conservation of this work provided by Tru Vue, Inc. and Omega Moulding Inc.
Amos Ashanti Johnson, Hermes Trigmegistus, 1977. Pastel on paper. 47 ½ x 95 ½ in. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums. © Artist or artist’s estate. Generous in-kind support of Optium Museum Acrylic for conservation of this work provided by Tru Vue, Inc. and Omega Moulding Inc.

 

AFRICAN RAINBOW

 

Johnson’s African Rainbow merges an Afrocentric iconography inclusive of Adinkra symbols—cultural emblems developed by the Asante of West Africa (Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire) to express popular proverbs and maxims—with an aesthetic popularized by AfriCOBRA. Borne out of the Civil Rights, Black Power and Black Arts Movements and founded in Chicago in 1968, AfriCOBRA artists created an aesthetic philosophy to guide their collective work—a shared visual language for positive revolutionary ideas, aimed to share with the African American community the truth and beauty of black self-identity. While Johnson is not affiliated with AfriCOBRA, African Rainbow and other works of his from the 1970s demonstrate the aesthetic and revolutionary influence of the Black Arts movement across the USA and the artist’s commitment to its message, iconography and visual style. Johnson shares with AfriCOBRA a desire to explore and define the Black visual aesthetic.

 

Amos Ashanti Johnson, African Rainbow, 1977. Pastel on paper. 47 ½ x 84 ¾ in. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums. © Artist or artist’s estate
Amos Ashanti Johnson, African Rainbow, 1977. Pastel on paper. 47 ½ x 84 ¾ in. Paul R. Jones Collection, University Museums. © Artist or artist’s estate

 

NOTE FROM CONSERVATORS

 

Conservator’s cart of supplies used for African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.
Conservator’s cart of supplies used for African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

 

In November of 2014, conservators from the Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) visited the University of Delaware to inspect the condition of the Ashanti Johnson pastels, write condition reports, and prepare estimates. The pastels were in frames that were too small and had no separation between the acrylic glass, or “glazing,” and the surface of the art. Both of these factors contributed to the overall buckling, or “cockling,” of the paper. Aside from the framing issues, there were other issues that needed to be addressed: mold growth and damaging tape mends.

 

The pastels were delivered to CCAHA for conservation treatment and framing in July of 2015. Senior Paper Conservator Jessica Silverman performed the conservation treatment. The first challenge in working on the Johnson pastels was their enormous size. It took four people to safely handle the artworks anytime they needed to be moved.

 

The two untreated works African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus arriving at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). Image courtesy of CCAHA.
The two untreated works African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus arriving at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA). Image courtesy of CCAHA.

 

The other key challenge in working on the Johnson pastels is the inherent friable, or crumbly, nature of pastels that have not been treated with a fixative. Some minor loss of pastel had to be accepted in order to reduce mold growth and to remove the tapes on the back, both of which were necessary for the long-term preservation of the artworks. In this way, the project exemplified an occasional aspect of conservation: compromise.

 

African Rainbow detail of mold on face before treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.
African Rainbow detail of mold on face before treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

 

Silverman reduced mold using pointed bamboo skewers dipped in an acrylic adhesive that remains tacky at room temperature. This technique allowed for the pinpoint removal of mold but some pastel media was inevitably removed as well. The masking and duct tape removal also presented a challenge. The pastels had to be placed face down—a dangerous position for the delicate artwork, which can easily rub off. Silverman placed the pastels on a slick, specialty paper and used a heated spatula to remove the tape. Next, she used discrete amounts of moisture to flatten the cockling. The careful combination of techniques and materials ensured a minimal amount of media transfer while the art was facedown.

 

Verso of the Pastels

 

Hermes Trigmegistus back before treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts
Hermes Trigmegistus back before treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts

 

Hermes Trigmegistus back after treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.
Hermes Trigmegistus back after treatment. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

 

 

Creating the housing and framing for the pastels was a challenge for the same reasons: the materials were oversized and the friable nature of the media needed to be accounted for. As noted above, the pastels were previously housed in frames that pressed the pastels against their acrylic glass glazing. When the artworks were removed from their frames, some of the color was left behind on the glazing. At CCAHA, it is customary framing practice to include a spacer to distance an artwork from the frame’s glazing in order to prevent this type of transfer. Along with designing a custom spacer for each of the pastels, CCAHA Manager of Housing & Framing Zachary Dell’Orto went a step further; he designed special gutters at the bottom of each frame to catch the trace amounts of pastel that could come loose.

 

Detail of gutter. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.
Detail of gutter. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

 

This will prevent these pieces of pastel from collecting within the bottom of the frame. As glazing, the University Museums at the University of Delaware selected Tru Vue Optium Museum Acrylic®, the only anti-reflective glazing product currently on the framing market that filters ultraviolet light and is also anti-static, essential for the housing of the large pastels.

 

zac dell orto working
Zac Dell’Orto working on Hermes Trigmegistus. Image courtesy of Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

 

The historical and cultural importance of the Johnson pastels within the history of American art, as well as the unique nature of their medium and scale, make them excellent showpieces for the beauty of Optium.

 

African Rainbow and Hermes Trigmegistus document boldly and magnificently a seminal era in the history of African American and thusly American art. University Museums staff is thrilled to have them conserved, newly housed and on exhibition. We are grateful to the conservators and Tru Vue for furthering our ultimate goal—sharing the works with you.

 

University of Delaware alums are among the conservators who worked on the Johnson pastels: The initial site visit, condition reports, and prepared estimates were carried out by Gwenanne Edwards, graduate of the Master’s program in Art Conservation SUNY Buffalo ‘12 and UD undergraduate double major in Art Conservation and Art History ‘08, and Allison Holcomb, MS, Winterthur / University of DE Program in Art Conservation ’12.  Senior Paper Conservator & Preservation Consultant Jessica Silverman (MS, Winterthur / University of DE Program in Art Conservation ’08) performed the conservation treatment.

 

To learn more about UD’s art conservation program see: www.artcons.udel.edu/

 

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