Walkthrough: 'Kota' Opens at the Pulitzer This Friday With Some Groundbreaking Work

By Krystin Arneson
In Culture

The Pulitzer occupies a fascinating space in STL’s museum scene as a laboratory, a testing ground for new ideas and showcase for research. The newest show, “Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art,” opens this Friday and leads the audience through an exploration of an academic argument about the Kota figures. True to the Pulitzer’s habit of shying away from didactics, it instead calls on participants to actively engage with the exhibition by asking questions and making connections—and a trip to the exhibition’s digital space will allow them to find and visualize the answers they’ve been looking for through the sleek (and kind of trippy) Kota Data Cloud.

On a visit to the Pulitzer last Friday, I walked through the exhibition, still in its last stages of setting up, with Kristina Van Dyke, the former Pulitzer director, an African arts specialist, and the co-orchestrator of this exhibition. As mentioned here, Kota are guardian figurines from what is now Gabon and the Republic of Congo, created over the course of the 17th-20th centuries. Believed to embody local, protective spirits on whom the success of the village depended, they were affixed to bundles (most of the bundles—but one—are long gone) containing the remains of village dead. They vary in size, have different facial attributes and ornamentation.

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

As missionaries and colonialism spread through Africa, especially in the 1930s, the stories and oral history behind many of the Kota figures was lost. Not much is known, especially, about the production. How do the figurines relate? What were their specific origins and who specifically created them?

The other co-curator of the exhibition, a Belgian computer engineer named Frederic Cloth, thinks he might be finding some answers through algorithms he wrote to reveal patterns among the Kota—and his argument, constructed over more than 15 years, is what will guide you through the exhibition. First, you see his line drawings that breaks down the Kota into their most elemental attributes—highlighting distinctions in ink that patina on the objects might otherwise obscure. “Your eye starts moving across this field, and you think, ‘I want to bring order to this,'” Van Dyke says.

Also, you’ll notice more detailed drawings that depict the Kota from both side and front angles, splicing the attributes into individual, building-block-like units. The exhibition is “designed for people who don’t know anything about African art,” says Van Dyke—this is all an exploration.

Illustration by Frederic Cloth | courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foundation

Illustration by Frederic Cloth | courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foundation

An assemblage of Kota wait to greet you as you move into the first gallery space, along with plenty of seating. The selection is “the widest range possible,” says Van Dyke—the better for you to “sit and mediate,” as she says, examine them, see similarities and think about how they relate. One example: Some of the figures’ heads are concave, others protrude out. Why? In his study of 2,000 Kota (50 are displayed in the exhibition), Cloth hypothesizes that concave heads represent a female figure; the protruding ones represent a male.

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

Next along the wall is a case that holds seven Kota—this time grouped to begin to provide answers. While not all details about all Kota are known, in this case, three Kota belonging to one workshop are adjacent; next to them are two Kota from another workshop—both groups flanked by singletons. You look at them grouped like this and begin to pick out common characteristics from given workshops through different generations (one of Cloth’s arguments).

Kota Data Cloud detail, interactive digital tool designed by Rampant Interactive | courtesy of Pulitzer Arts Foundation

Kota Data Cloud detail, interactive digital tool designed by Rampant Interactive | courtesy of Pulitzer Arts Foundation

The last stop on the first floor is the Kota Data Cloud, a room where what you piece together on screen surrounds you on the wall for an immersive experience. A massive touchscreen in the center selects Kota for you from a virtual “card deck,” and then you put the connections you’ve been making outside in the gallery by “drawing” lines to connect the Kota where you see relationships (all of this is projected large-scale on the wall in front of you) and form them into groups. The software then analyzes, by percentages, how much of each characteristic the Kota share in common. It allows you to visualize the relationships, get a sense of participating in the research and learn more about the figures’ production in various workshops.

“Through the digital experience of the Kota Data Cloud, the exhibition at the Pulitzer visualizes the process being undertaken by the curators to reconstruct the history of Kota reliquaries through a close observation of the objects themselves,” according to the exhibition’s press release.

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

Kota figure | photo courtesy Pulitzer Arts Foudation

This might seem a little intimating for some new to African art or to the most casual of museumgoers, but remember, this was designed for people who are coming in with a blank slate: “When people get their ‘report card’ back of what they see, they feel more confident about looking,” says Van Dyke. “So they go back out and look harder.”

Downstairs, more Kota await, some grouped so you can examine them by attribute (heads, arms), as well as a gallery showcasing some of the quirkier Kota that take on personalities of their own. There’s also the Kota Protolab, the site of Happy Badger/Rampant studio’s five-month residency at Pulitzer, where they’ll be using their program to draw further connections between the Kota and where guests who use the technology located there to create their own Kota might luck out with a 3-D printed version.

It’s a groundbreaking exhibition—and unusual in that rather than presenting the outcome of research, it presents the research itself, as well as new ways of exploring it. “This is not a done deal,” says Van Dyke. “We want visitors to ask if they should believe in the argument.” And with the incorporation of computer science, well…”I don’t think it would happen at any other institution,” she says. Importantly, the software, tweaked accordingly, could be used well outside of this context for art historians and specialists to track correlations and relationships between objects.

PS—If you want to get into the tech behind the exhibition, check out Cloth’s lecture at the DeYoung Museum, “Algorithms and Mathematics Applied to the Reconstitution of Lost Traditions,” here:

“Kota” runs Oct. 16-March 19 at the Pulitzer.

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