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Lecture: Mapping Senufo: Art from West Africa, Gaps in Data, and the Contingency of Knowledge

Mark Addison Smith. Page showing hand-rendered drawing after a photograph from the Michel Convers photographic collection now at the musée du quai Branly—Jacques Chirac in Paris, from Mood Boards + Design Experiments for Mapping Senufo, 31 January 2020.
Monday, October 10, 2022, 6:00 pm – 7:30 pm

Objects now labeled as Senufo first entered European and North American collections as art in the early twentieth century, and these works constitute one of the most celebrated categories of so-called historical or traditional African arts. Extant records for the objects, as for many other examples of historical arts of Africa, tend to lack precise information about where a work was made; who made it; or when, why, or how it was made. We may never be able to recover details to illuminate the exact contexts of an object’s original creation or use. The realization does not absolve us from the responsibility of trying to understand better each individual work or the particular people and histories involved in its making or handling. But it does require us to think carefully about the gaps that exist and the assumptions we might project into them in an effort to fill them.  

In this presentation, Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi examines how the process of building and filling in databases about Senufo arts focused attention on the ambiguity of available information and prompted questions about sources. Gagliardi and her collaborators then started to assess the quality and character of information, evaluating the individuals and contexts involved in the gathering and recording of data as well as the content. They are now working to find clear and visible ways to foreground uncertainty in data, question the purported authority of information, and present their findings in a born-digital scholarly publication that invites readers to consider the contingency of any knowledge.

Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi is Associate Professor of Art History at Emory University. Her scholarship draws on extensive study in West Africa, with a focus on western Burkina Faso, as well as archival and object-centered research in Africa, Europe, and North America. She published her first book Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa (2014) in conjunction with a major international exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Her second book Seeing the Unseen: Arts of Power Associations on the Senufo-Mande Cultural “Frontier” is slated for release by Indiana University Press in early January 2023. She initiated and now co-directs the born-digital publication project Mapping Senufo: Art, Evidence, and the Production of Knowledge with Constantine Petridis of the Art Institute of Chicago.