The Nature of Evidence: What Early-Colonial-Era Field-Based Documentation from the Frobenius-Institut Conceals and Reveals
Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi (Emory University)
Paper short abstract:
Field-based documentation offers possibilities for recovering detailed information about local agency in the production and use of the arts. But such documentation also often entails significant limitations in the recovery of local agency, requiring scholars to grapple with the nature of evidence.
Paper long abstract:
When Leo Frobenius and other members of the 1907-9 Deutsche Inner-Afrikanische Forschungs-Expedition traveled through areas of present-day Mali, they gathered information about objects they encountered and collected. They also created detailed drawings of the works. Many of the objects did not survive the twentieth century, so the drawings provide the only remaining record of the objects' existence and form. The team's notes provide additional insights into the works and into the team's collection methods. In this presentation, I will examine the team's documentation of arts of power associations, organizations in western West Africa that promote the exchange of potent knowledge across vast interpersonal networks. I will investigate where certain kinds of objects were reportedly made, who reportedly created them, and why people seem to have made them. I will consider how early-colonial-era, field-based documentation of African arts offers possibilities for recovering detailed information about local agency in the production and use of works. But I will also demonstrate how such documentation often entails significant limitations in the recovery of local agency. It requires scholars to grapple with the nature of their evidence. In my presentation, I will draw on recent research I conducted in the archives of the Frobenius-Institut as well as my own fieldwork in West Africa and focused study of similar objects in museum collections.
Reconnecting African art and artefacts