About the Project

Mark Addison Smith, page showing a hand-rendered design possibility for our digital publication in Mood Boards + Design Experiments for “Mapping Senufo,” 31 January 2020.

“Mapping Senufo: Art, Evidence, and the Production of Knowledge” emerged from our prior collaboration on the 2015 exhibition Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa, a major international effort organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). Gagliardi wrote the book that accompanied the show. Petridis, then curator of African art at the CMA, selected objects and installed them in the galleries to present Gagliardi’s thesis within a three-dimensional space. Through Gagliardi’s book and the exhibition it informed, we deconstructed the term Senufo and its limited usefulness in providing an all-encompassing, authoritative explanation for a category of art. We investigated the colonial context in which the term first appeared in French publications at the end of the nineteenth century. We examined how art connoisseurs and other enthusiasts applied the Senufo label to a growing number of objects from Africa arriving in Europe and North America in the early twentieth century. We also considered assumptions embedded in the term and its application to the arts throughout the twentieth century.

As we worked together on the exhibition project, we began to imagine possibilities for creating a multilayered digital map based on specific place-based information we were encountering in disparate sources from the late-nineteenth century to the present. We thought the map would allow us to confirm or revise the geographic distribution of forms proposed in Robert Goldwater’s Senufo Sculpture from West Africa (1964) as well as other sources. We worked with members of the project team to create a relational database and plot points. We started to notice that points we added to our digital maps seemed to imply certainty. Yet for many of the points we plotted, we found we had more ambiguous than steadfast information for determining locations. The character of place-based information also varied from object to object. A place linked to an object could indicate a reported location of documentation or reported site of acquisition. Or it could designate a locale reportedly associated with the life or work of a person credited with making the object.

Our embrace of digital methods to assess a range of field-based data required us to reexamine the nature of our evidence and shift the project’s focus to a study of the quality and character of information about Senufo arts. Now as we continue to work with the project team to develop “Mapping Senufo: Art, Evidence, and the Production of Knowledge” as a born-digital publication, we are reassessing various types of evidence to show startling discrepancies between information offered through historical sources and assumptions long shared by art historians, curators, dealers, collectors, and other enthusiasts. We focus specifically on data and ideas about arts and peoples labeled as Senufo. We demonstrate ways to attend to uneven collection, recording, suppression, and interpretation of evidence. We embrace gaps and messiness in knowledge production instead of aiming to weave disparate details into a single narrative account. In so doing, we make visible processes of knowledge construction. We also encourage reflection on the ways in which specialists have asserted expertise through the production and codification of observations and assessments often considered as facts.

Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi and Constantine Petridis
26 August 2020