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Q&A with Stanford Humanities Center fellow Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi

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Africanist Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi in western Burkina Faso, a region where she has conducted much of the fieldwork for her research.
Photo Credit: 
Constantine Petridis

Art historian and current Humanities Center fellow Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi works on the historical and contemporary arts of West Africa with a focus on arts sponsored by people in Senufo- and Mande-speaking communities. She also researches the practices and theories of power and assemblage, the seen and the unseen, secrecy, masquerade, patronage, museums, and display methods. She is an assistant professor of African art history at Emory University.

Gagliardi has conducted 33 months of fieldwork in West Africa as well as archival and museum-based research in Africa, Europe, and North America. In 2015, she published Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa in conjunction with an exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art. Gagliardi is a Distinguished Junior External Fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center this year. Her current book project “Seeing the Unseen: Arts of Power Associations on the Senufo-Mande Cultural ‘Frontier’” focuses on arts and performances of West African power associations — a phrase that refers to the region’s great patrons for the arts since at least the end of the nineteenth century.

Power association leaders are specialists with the capacity to heal and to cause harm. Gagliardi examines how power association leaders use the arts to engage audiences, advertise expertise, and attract clients without fully disclosing their potent knowledge. But they also restrict access to the arts, at times prohibiting women and children from seeing their assemblages, installations, or performances.

She recently answered some questions about her research.

How did you first become interested in arts of western Burkina Faso?

My interest in the arts of western Burkina Faso relates to some of the first questions about arts of Africa that I asked as an undergraduate student at the Johns Hopkins University. A work-study job with Fredrick Lamp, then a curator of African art at the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA), led me to take the only course in African art history that he offered during my four years at Johns Hopkins, and it also led me to study abroad in Ghana during the fall semester of my junior year. When I returned to Johns Hopkins after my study-abroad experience, I asked Fred if I could work on a research project in the museum. He asked me to investigate several objects in the museum’s collection, including a Lobi stool and a Lobi figure presumably from a region that spans the borders of present-day Burkina Faso, Côte d’Ivoire, and Ghana. One of the first questions I asked was, “If the objects are identified as Lobi, what is Lobi?” The term seemed to name a cultural or ethnic group, but I quickly discovered that the answer to my question was more complicated. The question resulted in my return to Ghana to spend a year studying arts identified as Lobi with support from a Fulbright-IIE fellowship. After the fellowship ended, I pursued an MA at the University of East Anglia and then a PhD at UCLA with the same question in mind.

At UCLA, my dissertation topic took as its starting point the idea that analyzing arts in terms of discrete cultural or ethnic groups may not make sense because the distribution of arts does not overlap neatly with cultural or ethnic group boundaries. But rather than focus on arts identified as Lobi, I decided to switch my focus to arts of power associations because the organizations have crossed cultural, ethnic, religious, and geopolitical borders for more than a century. The organizations transcend these boundaries through their promotion of the exchange of knowledge across vast interpersonal networks.

Can you explain the phrase power associations? Where does that phrase come from? Whom does that phrase encompass, and why did you choose to use it?

I use the English term power association to refer to what Mande-language speakers call jo (sing.; jow, pl.). Jow are organizations that specialists form through interpersonal networks they develop to cultivate knowledge. Jow also invest in assemblages, installations, and performances. With no exact English equivalent for jow, local and foreign authors have at different moments in time used terms including fraternities, confraternities, brotherhoods, religious cults, secret societies, and initiation associations as approximate equivalents. The terms highlight the organizations’ predominantly male orientation, religious nature, or secrecy bias, or they suggest some sort of formal or graded initiation processes.

The idea of power in the term power association refers to the capacity to effect change. It exemplifies the concept as the late Africanist art historian Arnold Rubin delineated it in 1974 with respect to accumulative arts produced broadly across the continent. Rubin posited that accumulative arts in African contexts reflect individuals’ efforts to manage diverse resources and concentrate potent energies. To illustrate his point, Rubin singled out objects created by power associations. The organizations’ members create the works with complex internal structures and indeterminate surface matter as they attempt to manage resources in this world and the other world in order to effect change. In this sense, the works are power objects. And in a manner reminiscent of Rubin’s discussion of power and accumulation, Africanist art historian Patrick McNaughton has for decades used the term power associations to refer to institutions known in Mande languages as jow.

How do you manage to write about power association performances when you are not allowed to see certain performances because you are a woman? Can you tell us about your various strategies for collecting data?

Since 2004, I have spent more than twenty-two months in western Burkina Faso, interviewing power association leaders and other community members, attending events, and participating in everyday activities. But even as a foreign woman, I am not permitted to see events of Komo or Kono power associations in western Burkina Faso, and I have always respected this restriction. So, I asked power association leaders and other community members about Komo and Kono events they have seen. I also attended other events and interviewed people about them. One organization, Wara, hosts events that women can attend but that are reportedly similar to Komo and Kono performances, namely in their abilities to draw crowds, address individual and community-wide concerns, and advertise specialists’ skill. Certainly different power association chapters and their performances vary in significant ways. Still, by attending power association performances I was permitted to see, and by listening carefully to how people talked about different power associations and their performances during formal interviews and in casual conversations, I gained insight into what happens at the events I was not allowed to see. This approach shifted my attention to audiences’ experiences of masquerade and also allowed me to see how women contribute to Komo and Kono, two organizations long described as male dominated. In fact, women constitute important unseeing audiences for Komo and Kono performances.

Why, despite decades of scholarship, does Africa remain a homogeneous entity to many in Europe and North America?

In her famous 2009 TED Talk, the MacArthur Award-winning, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie alerts listeners to what she calls “the danger of a single story.” “To create a single story,” she explains, “show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” As Adichie and other observers have noted, references to Africa in the media, films, literature, and museums often mute the continent’s complexity, obscure individual agency, and ignore specific histories. They create and reinforce single stories.

Attributing artistic creation and knowledge to discrete cultural or ethnic groups similarly conceals complexity, implying sameness among art makers, audiences, and patrons. Art historians and other scholars have for decades recognized the inadequacy of the approach. Yet without new models to replace old frameworks, scholars have continued to rely on singular cultural or ethnic group classifications to explain art. For example, on the basis of form and old anthropological classifications, an encyclopedic museum, university museum, or other institution attributes a sculpture to the culture of the Senufo peoples, designates an object’s makers as Senufo peoples, or otherwise asserts the Senufo authorship of a work. Similar labeling applies to arts from across the continent. And these classifications often seem to structure analysis. But relying on bounded cultural or ethnic groups to understand the arts creates and reinforces single stories for artists, audiences, and patrons, suggesting consistency rather than diversity within each group over time.