African Art Connoisseurship 2.0

When I was an intern at the National Museum of African Art in D.C., I had many conversations with chief curator Christine Mullen Kreamer about the importance of connoisseurship within the discipline of African art history. She lamented that there has yet to be effective pedagogy to the study of connoisseurship which, in turn, has limited the amount of scholarship dedicated to identifying African artists and understanding the individual aesthetic choices that often challenge established Styles. Our discussions took place within the museum’s collection storage rooms and Dr. Kreamer walked me through aisle after aisle highlight unique forms, unusual details, and creative choices that individualized each work of art. I was instantly overwhelmed with all the artistic nuances she was so easily able to identify. I left these conversations frustrated that I did not have any of the skills she clearly possessed, but complacently determined that these are skills that I’ll acquire ‘at some point over time.’

The Connoisseur’s eye is definitely a wise eye. Of course, it takes years of engaging with certain types of art to really get a sense for stylistic differences. Yet it is impossible to leave this skill up to temporal chance– the passive “at some point.” Dr. Kreamer’s pleas for a reformation in educational connoisseurship is apt. What can institutions do to train young scholars to be connoisseurs? What tools do we have at hand to help?

This week I spent some time reading about and engaging with different methodologies and digital resources that Digital Humanists are using to enhance and progress their research. The Archives for American Art has an amazing collection of recorded oral histories by artists and educators affiliated with Federal and State Art projects. John Resig has published an article outlining his experience using MatchEngine to analyze images of anonymous Italian art at the Frick Art Reference Library. The Software Studies Initiative’s “Cultural Analytics” program allows for large sets of data (images) to be analyzed in relation to one another, illuminating visual similarities and differences (see this video on Rothko). In addition to all of the specific arguments each project introduces, these examples prove just the diversity in resources available for Art Historians/Humanists to engage with their research in new ways. For example, Linda Shopes, in her online essay “Making Sense of Oral History,” states that oral histories complicate and even inspire new understandings of our past.

Oral history is not simply another source, to be evaluated unproblematically like any other historical source…An interview is inevitably an act of memory, and while individual memories can be more or less accurate, complete, or truthful, in fact interviews routinely include inaccurate and imprecise information, if not outright falsehoods…Although oral historians do attempt to get the story straight through careful background research and informed questioning, they are ultimately less concerned with the vagaries of individual memories than with the larger context within which individual acts of remembering occur, or with what might be termed social memory. 

As we can see, an oral history is just as useful for its discrepancies and nuances than it is for its ‘historical fact’ (in fact, perhaps even more so). New questions and avenues of analysis arise through examining oral histories which emphasizes its resourcefulness to scholars.

Upon reflection, I would argue that all tools used in the three examples listed above would revitalize the pedagogy of connoisseurship. Think about it. A visual way to process large sets of data would facilitate comparative visual analysis. Furthermore, if these visualization projects also include computation vision, meaning the code to identify similarities and difference among images digitally, then students and scholars can critically examine computational matches for their accuracy. As Resig notes, these matching softwares expedite the time it would take to manually sift through large collections of images. The softwares can also identify new matches that we might not have made because of its detailed search criteria. And finally, oral histories could be extremely useful for connoisseurship. If there were recorded interviews from artists and craftsmen within ethnic communities detailing the history of objects, forms, and styles, we might be able to glean new information on individual styles, aesthetic taste, and the oeuvre of specific artists. As oral history is still a predominant way to record the past for some African ethnic groups, having access to these might in fact be the most useful resource for scholars, students, and connoisseurs.

As I wrap up this post, I want to include yet another tool that could help train the connoisseur’s eye. I played around with the website Thinglink which allows you to annotate images, videos, and other media. As an educational resource, it’d be easy to upload an image of an African sculpture, like the Fante figures below, and identify the formal qualities that match collective styles but also note stylistic differences.

There is so much potential to expand the pedagogy of connoisseurship to the digital realm. By implementing new tools of image analysis, data synthesis, and oral histories, a student of African art has a work-belt of unique resources that emphasize the formal qualities of African Art while framing them within new discussions on authorship, style, and creativity.

And, for something extra, I am including media that I annotated with ThingLink. Using the site was a new experience for me and I was very much just playing with the features so I apologize that the media is not African Art related. All work is my own (shoutout to senior year of undergrad!)

And here is a link to a video with annotations:

Archives of American Art Oral History Collections.
Resig, John, “Using Computer Vision to Increase the Research Potential of Photo Archives.”
Software Studies Initiative, “Cultural Analytics.” 
Shopes, Linda, “Making Sense of Oral History,” Oral History in the Digital Age.


  1. I appreciate your perspective as an Africanist, and after reading your post I can see how each of these tools would be useful in connoisseurship. Software can handle large collections of images, as well as identify new matches of images. This would be quite useful towards identifying the work of certain artists. I enjoyed hearing about your experience as an intern at the National Museum of African Art in D.C., and I can relate to feeling overwhelmed when you realize how large the gap is between what you currently know, and what your mentor knows. You are right when you state that the connoisseur’s eye takes years to develop. I agree with you that digital technology can certainly help. I would add that one can only gain the experience to develop a discerning eye by examining the objects themselves, and having a range of objects to compare them with, as in a museum’s collection. That is not an opportunity which as afforded to everyone in a graduate program, but perhaps it should be. Just as reading from an actual piece of paper is more memorable than reading from a screen, the same could be said of objects. Looking at a high-resolution image on a museum’s site is not the same as seeing the object in person, especially when it comes to three-dimensional objects of African art. Compounding the problem is the expense of digitization, which means that museums do not have digital images of their entire collection on view, or on their websites. If we do another project with Thinglink, I hope you annotate a work an African statue you are familiar with, because I would love to learn more about it. I enjoyed seeing your artwork, and also impressed that you were able to embed the images, which I have yet to accomplish. What you did with your artwork got me thinking about how wonderful it would be to have contemporary artists do this for a few of their works at an exhibition, as a digital experience which would augment the exhibition. Many people struggle with contemporary art, and are afraid to ask questions about it. Artists sometimes struggle with writing an artist’s statement as well, so sometimes there is none, or if there is, there may be some terms which viewers may find confusing. I went to an artist’s exhibition without an artist’s statement and without wall labels and everyone was baffled. I think as museum’s try to engage more viewers, and incorporate more digital and technological elements in their exhibitions, that a Thinglink-type interactive display would be very popular. Artists could talk about their technique, how they mix colors, and why they made the stylistic choices they did. I think having an interactive element like that would engage viewers of all ages. Finally, I would love to see what would happen if you put all the code from your artwork into a computer. I enjoyed hearing your thoughts on how digital technology would help you in your work as an Africanist.

  2. Michelle says:

    Taylor, I really appreciated the way you tied together the various readings. I especially enjoyed your discussion on how oral histories may be used for connoisseurship. I hadn’t thought about how many oral histories already exist regarding African subjects, in part because many of these are labeled as ethnographic or anthropological studies. Having access to those histories and strategies would definitely expand scholars’ abilities to identify artists. I also totally agree that in the case of African art where there is often little to no surviving historical documents to assist in connoisseurship, digital image matching would be a useful tool to recognize individual aspects of a work that can be attributed to an artist or workshop. As an aside, I love your work that you included in your experimentation with Thinglink! The site was also new for me, but I think it has so much potential! I liked that you worked with it on your own images as the artist, I wonder how more artists could annotate their work for students or scholars to access?

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