Mapping Senufo

Mapping Senufo Website Page

About the Project

Mapping Senufo is a collaborative digital humanities initiative to study art and place in a dynamic West African region. Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi initiated the project in August 2013 with support from the Emory Center for Digital Scholarship (ECDS).

Why do we identify some art from West Africa as Senufo, and what does the term convey about the art?

Documentation of sculptures and other examples of arts identified as Senufo often reveals little, if anything, about individual artists who created the works and specific contexts for the works' creation or use. Imagine knowing works by Paul Cézanne or Edouard Manet only as French rather than attributing the works to any individual artist or historical moment, thereby emphasizing sameness of French art at all times rather than differences among individual works, their authors, and their contexts of production.

When applied to the arts, the Senufo label facilitates classification of objects for sale or study when little or no documentation exists to identify specific artists, patrons, or audiences. Early twentieth-century connoisseurs and scholars who first looked at objects from the African continent as art sought to delineate discrete styles. For admirers of African art, applying cultural or ethnic group labels offered a ready way to categorize art consistent with views of the continent at the time. The approach is grounded in an assumption that art style coincides with language, religion, and social organization. Yet scholars have for decades recognized that art style, language, religion, and social organization do not overlap so neatly. Nevertheless the classifications and assumptions undergirding them endure in museums, exhibitions, and publications.

Mapping Senufo draws on specific time- and place-based data to shift bases for analysis from all-encompassing cultural or ethnic labels to historical data linked to identifiable people, places, and dates. Drawing on a range of archival data from the late nineteenth century to the present day, it will:

  • Visualize time- and place-based information about specific arts and about knowledge of the arts
  • Reveal new possibilities for analyzing histories of art and the production of knowledge
  • Generate fresh questions for study of arts that move beyond cultural or ethnic group classifications

Maps generated by members of the Mapping Senufo team appeared in the 2015 exhibition "Senufo: Art and Identity in West Africa," organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA), and the accompanying publication Senufo Unbound: Dynamics of Art and Identity in West Africa (2015; The Cleveland Museum of Art and 5 Continents Editions). A Wall Street Journal review celebrates the exhibition and the "one-two punch of physical beauty and formal power" of the sculptures it features.

Support for Mapping Senufo comes from sources including ECDS, the Emory College Program to Enhance Research and Scholarship (PERS), and the Emory University Research Committee. Gagliardi and Robyn Banton also worked on Mapping Senufo as fellows at the inaugural Kress Summer Institute on Digital Mapping and Art History at Middlebury College in August 2014.

Project Team

  • Principal Investigator: Susan Elizabeth Gagliardi (Emory University)
  • Co-Investigator: Constantine Petridis (The Cleveland Museum of Art)
  • Research Data Librarian: Jennifer Doty, MSI
  • Beck Foundation Fellow: Joanna Mundy
  • Geographer: Michael Page
  • Digital Text Specialist: Sara Palmer
  • GIS Librarian: Megan Slemons
  • Consulting Web Designer: Erin Hecht
  • Research Assistants: Robyn Banton, Zhongyi Gao, Caitlin Glosser, Xinyu Liu, Courtney Rawlings, Jacqueline Veliz, Liu Yang