The Pulitzer Arts Foundation touts itself as part art museum, part laboratory, with a commitment to innovation as firm as its commitment to showcasing the world’s finest art. With its new exhibition “Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art,” the Pulitzer has fulfilled its dual mission to an unprecedented degree.

“Kota” is a name given to a body of funerary sculpture produced in what is now Gabon and the Republic of Congo, between the 17th and 20th centuries. Bringing more than 40 of these evocative, highly prized sculptures to St. Louis would itself be an historic occasion – and the show is already a milestone for being the Pulitzer’s first exhibition of African art, co-curated by Kristina Van Dyke, who started the project when director of the Pulitzer.

But it’s the “Digital Excavations” aspect that makes this show truly unprecedented. Van Dyke invited the collaboration of Frederic Cloth, her co-curator, and his innovative method of investigating Kota sculpture is what structures the exhibition.

A Belgian computer engineer with considerable skill as a draughtsman, Cloth became fascinated with Kota sculpture about 15 years ago. Struck by how little is known about this body of work, he began to draw Kota sculptures that he saw in galleries, museums and publications, trying to understand their detail with the intimacy of a copyist. Cloth’s line drawings of the Kota sculptures that appear in the show are the first thing you see stepping into the exhibition (and form the core of a catalogue with a uniquely understated beauty).

Drawing Kota sculptures, Cloth began to isolate all of their variable details. Faced with more detail and variation than he could sort out himself, he developed a computer algorithm and used it to explore the tradition of more 2,000 extant sculptures he had drawn. Doing so led him to fresh conclusions.

For example, he noticed that no matter how you sort the corpus of Kota figures by similar traits, you find two female figures for every one male. This led him to conclude that the funerary sculptures were made in groups of three, with two females and one male. This is a remarkably specific conjecture for a set of sculptures about which almost nothing is known. It also has tangible repercussions in the 21st century world of collectors and gallerists, since it results in specific female sculptures now being grouped (at least by Cloth) alongside specific male sculptures that are especially prized – and highly appraised.

The Pulitzer exhibit, of course, does not stoop to venal considerations of resale value. Instead, it invites guests to join Cloth’s investigative method in various ways.

It’s nice to imagine that Cloth’s own painstaking drawings might inspire visitors to sketch the sculptures (Pulitzer staff will be happy to give you a pencil; no pens). The curators more deliberately invite guests into an interactive multi-media room where it’s possible to interact with Cloth’s database using a touch-screen table where you can move around cards corresponding to the sculptures in the show. Guests are invited to try their hand at making their own groupings of Kota sculptures according to whatever variables they notice and prioritize. This game-like process is broadcast on the walls of the room using data clouds of light.

The Pulitzer takes the innovation a step further – in the basement, where a former storage room has been turned into 3,700 square feet of new exhibit space. Much of that space is given over to Kota sculptures, including a set of more innovative and quirky pieces, where the artists experimented with asymmetrical design. There is also a lounge space where local game designers Rampant – who devised the interactive game on the main floor – will be artists in residence. They will keep office hours at the Pulitzer to help guests continue their digital explorations of African art after they have seen the show.

The Pulitzer exhibition does include one funerary sculpture with at least remnants of the original ancestral remains that it guarded back in Africa. We know the sculptures guarded ancestral remains because missionaries in Africa photographed local men bringing in Kota figures to be destroyed as part of the belief system they were abandoning. There are, in fact, exactly six known period photographs or drawings of Kota sculptures in their cultural context. And even these images may reflect the bias – indeed, hostility – of the Europeans who documented them, as Van Dyke told The American during a private tour of the show while it was being constructed.

“These images were made by missionaries and explorers known to have helped bring the tradition to an end,” Van Dyke said.

Taking the most charitable view of this exhibition, the Pulitzer is, in its own way, working to repair the damage done to these powerful cultural figures by creatively enlarging our knowledge of them. Computer game designers in America are admittedly a far cry from African people making sacred sculpture to guard their ancestors. But the Pulitzer is an art museum and a laboratory, so it is getting in where it fits in.

As the placard reads at the entry to the (very comfortable) lounge at the Pulitzer where Rampant will be keeping office hours: “A space for hacking, thinking, and creating new data ...”

“Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art,” opens at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation, 3716 Washington Ave., on Friday, October 16 and runs until next March 19. Tribal Art published a dual-language (English/French) Special Issue #5 “Kota: New Light / Nouveaux eclairages) in association with the Pulitzer exhibition

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