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A Digital Excavation for the Tomb Guardians of Central Africa

Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Ndassa, Republic of Congo (collection of Pierre Amrouche, all images via Pulitzer Arts Foundation)

Kota reliquaries were once ancestral guardians in Central Africa, holding baskets with their bowed arms that cradled bones, their benevolent bodies carved from wood and wrapped in formed metal. Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art — which opens October 16 at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis — is the first exhibition to focus on them in-depth, and involves a digital experience where visitors discover forgotten patterns and connections in the faded art.

Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (20th century), Obamba, Gabon (courtesy Arman Marital Trust, Corice Arman Trustee) (click to enlarge)

Most of the reliquaries were made between the 17th to 20th centuries and their creation was halted by colonialism, especially when foreign missionaries in the 1930s exerted their control in today’s Republic of Congo and Gabon. The “digital excavation” into their lost history is a project by Belgian computer scientist Frederic Cloth, who developed a database of surviving Kota reliquaries, included in the exhibition as the Kota Data Cloud designed by Rampant Interactive.

“There’s a lot of missing information, and we don’t really know as much about these objects as we’d want, about the makers, and when they were collected,” Cara Starke, director of Pulitzer Arts Foundation, told Hyperallergic. “For 15 to 20 years [Cloth] has been collecting data on these Kota, including hand-drawing all the extant ones, which is about 2,000.”

Kota includes 50 reliquaries on loan from various collections. Cloth co-curated the exhibition with former Pulitzer director Kristina Van Dyke, and the digital and physical experiences are meant to intertwine, harnessing computer science as a new way to interpret the reliquaries.

“Our show is trying to both offer the opportunity to experience and look at these Kota, and also understand the methodologies that [Cloth] went through,” Starke said. She explained that on the Kota Data Cloud, visitors can make their own groupings of Kota with a touchscreen, maybe putting those together with circular eyes, or corralling those with rectangular ears. “It’s getting people to think about and look at this level of detail when they go back into the show,” she said.

Screenshot of the Kota Data Cloud, the exibition's interactive digital tool by Rampant Interactive (courtesy Rampant Interactive)
Screenshot of the Kota Data Cloud, the exibition’s interactive digital tool by Rampant Interactive (courtesy Rampant Interactive)

The Kota Data Cloud and its underlying research have revealed some previous unknowns about the Kota, such as a one-to-two ratio of male and female figures, suggesting they were meant to be assembled in groups of three. Analysis of style evolutions has indicated artist workshops that may have stretched over generations. Kota is the first public demonstration of the database, presented in a digital experience by Rampant Interactive, a software and gaming studio, which will have a five-month residency at the Pulitzer during the exhibition. Along with the Kota Data Cloud, another Rampant Interactive experience called the Kota Protolab invites visitors to form their own digital reliquaries that can be 3D printed.

Each reliquary stands between eight and 30 inches tall — though the bone baskets mostly no longer exist, although one is included in the show — and Kota treats each as an individual, inviting visitors to delve into their history as ritualistic spiritual artifacts, and the artistic tradition behind their centuries of creation.

“From my perspective, the hope is that when someone walks away, it heightens their ability to look at these objects and focus in on things like the shape of the eyes, that there is a necklace on another,” Starke said. “It’s not getting into material things like wood and the metal, but is very much about looking.”

Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Wumbu, Gabon (courtesy Dr. Oliver E. and Pamela F. Cobb)
Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Obamba, Gabon (courtesy Galerie Alain Bovis, photo by Mathieu Ferrier)
Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Sango, Gabon (courtesy Galerie Alain Bovis, photo by Mathieu Ferrier)
Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (pre-19th century), Obamba, Gabon (courtesy Bernice and Sidney Clyman Collection, photo by Richard Goodbody)
Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Obamba, Gabon (courtesy Felix Collection, photo by Paul Louis)
Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art
Reliquary guardian figure (19th century), Shamaye, Gabon (courtesy Mitchell A. Harwood and Fran Janis, photo by Oren E.)

Kota: Digital Excavations in African Art is October 16, 2015 to March 19, 2016 at the Pulitzer Arts Foundation (3716 Washington Boulevard, St. Louis).

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