Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture

Uncommon Sense—the blog

Message in a Bottle

· March 16th, 2015 · No Comments

OI author Cécile Fromont writes about images and writing for scholars outside the world of art history—

As most art historians – at least in my experience – I start reading a book by hungrily flipping through the pages to catch a glimpse of the images. The closer the book to my area of research, the more excitedly I take stock of the images, nodding at the inclusion of keystones in the field, wondering about omitted pieces, and gasping in delight at unexpected additions to the known corpus. After this revealing, often joyful, but also, alas, sometimes disappointing sprint through the volume, I change gear and plunge in earnest into the book, slowly making my way through the text. Whether the volume includes few plates or is lavishly illustrated, I pay, by training, close attention to the ways in which the author wove together word and image into her argument.

Scholars from different disciplines expectedly treat images in different ways; art historians give them primacy while scholars from other fields may use them as complements to their text. Many volumes include no images beyond their cover, if at all.

Barring grossly erroneous or misleading use of visuals, I respect these field-specific differences even if I believe in the cross-disciplinary potential of serious engagement with visual materials outside of traditionally visual fields.  (What glaring errors, do you ask? Well, I have seen photographs of upside down or flipped objects, or else artworks from unrelated times and places inexplicably inserted into otherwise sage prose. )

Writing in a field defined and led by scholars seldom focusing on visual questions, I have given much thought about what visual and material culture could contribute to our knowledge of Africa in the early modern period from an Atlantic perspective. And, you guessed it; I think they can bring much light even to some of the most vexing issues in the field. Objects and images for example, make clear the enduring prevalence of Christian symbols in discourses of prestige and legitimacy in the kingdom of Kongo along the early modern period, no matter how ambivalent or fragmentary the written record may be on the question.

Art historians often say that images in a book should tell a story on their own. Take the maxim with the grain of salt it deserves, but provocative juxtapositions of artworks, images of newly uncovered objects, and views of overseen details can be among the most thought provoking, exciting, inspiring, or eyebrow raising parts of a volume.

Writing The Art of Conversion, one of my goals was to build and publish a corpus of objects and images that would not only define and showcase Kongo Christian visual and material culture but also invite further study. Given the challenges of academic publishing, I am grateful that I could bring 93 figures together in the volume. The process of narrowing their numbers from the hundreds I could have included to 93 came with many hard choices. In the end, I put forth to readers a selection that is broad and representative but also exciting and evocative of new research possibilities. Now that the book is out, they are my message in a bottle; I hope that they will catch the eye of inquiring minds who will probe them further.

Now, does The Art of Conversion pass the art historical image test? What do its images look like when flipped through for the first time? I cannot wait to hear…

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