© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Digital framework gives fresh look at centuries-old African Art at the Pulitzer

Exhibition room at Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Pulitzer Arts Foundation
Exhibition room at Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art

Kristina Van Dyke, co-curator of “Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art” currently on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation through March 19, describes the discovery of the Kota reliquary figures and their naming as an “accident of history.”

A French explorer in eastern Gabon, a country in western Africa, encountered a group of people and noted the name Kota. He then applied the name to all cultural groups in that region and the art they produced. The name continues to be used although the creators of these works have a complex history.

A diamond-shaped extension protrudes from the lower half of the sculptures representing arms that would have held bundles of ancestral remains as a means of protecting them. Although reliquary tradition is widespread in this region of Africa, the Kota figures are unique to eastern Gabon and the Republic of Congo where they are found.

The Kota figures have been referenced in famous works of modern art and even fascinated artist such as Pablo Picasso.

The focus of the exhibit is the research of Frederic Cloth, a computer scientist in Belgium who conducted a 15-year study of these historical objects. He started by drawing the figures which allowed him to begin thinking about patterns and connections that might exist between different figures. 

He found by doing this that there were so many formal criteria that went into each object that it would be too much for his human mind to compute. As a computer scientist, he then thought to create a database and a search engine through an algorithm that would help him find patterns within the body of objects.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public radio
Kristina Van Dyke

We know very little about the Kota objects—where they came from, how they were used, or how they got from the original owners to missionaries, colonial officials and others.

“Objects actually contain incredible clues about their making and bout their use,” said Van Dyke.

The use of this technology has huge implications for other fields such as other groups of African objects that also lack clear historical accounting about their use or field work.

As you enter the exhibition, you are confronted with two groups of objects. The first shows you the undifferentiated mass of objects, small and large, with no grouping or order. The second is a clearly defined group of objects that show the workshop of the Sebe master over generations.

The Sebe master group contains figures with similar aesthetics that are clearly united. This contrast hopes to empower visitors to proceed with the exhibition knowing that they, too, can make these distinctions between similar and different objects.

As you enter the interactive portion of the exhibit, you see a digitization of the 2000 objects Frederic Cloth has drawn swirling on the walls. A touch-screen table allows you to interact with a deck of the 50 figures included in the show and attempt to group them yourself based on their physical attributes. You can submit your groupings to see how your guesses compare to how the algorithm has sorted the database. Local game design firm Rampant Interactive helped to develop and test this technology.

"This is how all art history, no matter what field, begins: we start with a set of objects and we ask questions about the objects."

This is the first time African historical material has been on display at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation. This exhibit serves as an introduction that seeks to ask the question, “What can people discern on their own?”

“This is how all art history, no matter what field, begins: we start with a set of objects and we ask questions about the objects,” said Van Dyke.

Previously, the Pulitzer did a show called “The Progress of Love” that focused on contemporary ephemeral art forms in Africa. Africa has great musical and oral history as well as dance. African art is a field that wasn’t really born yet in the U.S. until after WWII that was supported by enthusiastic collectors of African art. In the wake of decolonization and many African countries gaining their independence, this art became more available to western scholars.

Cloth’s major insight was that Kotas were made in groups of three—one male, two female. Each community would have had three of these figures and would have made a triumvirate that would have been closely guarded by village elders.

The makers of the Kotas believed in ancestor veneration. They believed that departed relatives could intervene on their behalf. Trials, tribulations, and successes have much to do with the way you are remembering and honoring those that have come before you.

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh, and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

Stay Connected

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.