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Pulitzer Arts Foundation combines African art and an algorithm

Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

The Pulitzer Arts Foundation’s first exhibit of exclusively African art asks the question, “how can technology help curate a show?” For curator Kristina Van Dyke, this question may predict the future of curating.

“I think this is a really important show for the field because it introduces a methodology that I believe will be increasingly important,” said Van Dyke, the Pulitzer's former director, as “Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art” was opening.

The exhibit offers a new perspective on an “orphaned” collection of figures of which little is known.

Kota are made of metal, wood and human bone that are meant to watch over bundles of ancestral bones placed in baskets. Only one figure is displayed with this reliquary still attached.

The objects date from the 17th to early 20th century and little is known about the artists and crafts-people who made the work. They can be traced stylistically to different areas in Gabon and surrounding countries.

“This has to do with the context of the tradition’s demise, which was really around colonialism and missionary activating in what is now Gabon and the Republic of the Congo,” said Van Dyke.

Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
One section of the exhibit displays a series of Kota against one wall.

One key element in understanding the Kota is an algorithm designed by Belgian computer engineer Frederic Cloth. He wrote a formula that takes different physical characteristics -- such as eye shape, type of metal, position of facial features -- and creates groups of like figures. Cloth was then able to determine certain histories of each object and determine additional information about who may have created certain works.

One breakthrough presented by Cloth and Van Dyke and Cloth indicates that the figures may have been created in groups of three that included one male figure and two female figures. This observation is supported by research based on the algorithm’s initial breakdown of the ratio between gender representations in the figures. This ratio was cross checked with characteristics that indicate whether figures were made by the same hands. It’s a revelation dependent on Cloth’s algorithm.

“That is something that would not have been possible without such a large group of data,” said Van Dyke.

By using the algorithmic results as a jumping off point into further research and study, Van Dyke and Cloth have created a fresh way of curating.

Credit Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio

Cloth explains tracing the history of one Kota artist known as the Master of the Sebe.

Van Dyke and Cloth said they want the curatorial experience to remain as transparent as possible. To this end the Pulitzer developed an interactive digital program that allows viewers to select images of the Kota from a touch screen that's the size of a small table, drag them together to form personalized collections, and statistically evaluate what characteristics are shared by these arrangements. This information is then displayed on the gallery walls around the viewer as well as on the touch screen.   

“It was really important to us that we reveal not only the objects and the outcome of Freddie’s research to date, but that we show you the process and really invite you to come along,” said Van Dyke.

Attendees will have a chance to test their curatorial and associative skills at the exhibit, which opens this weekend and runs through March.