Briefcase, Senegal, late 20th century

This week, we hear again from students in Professor Jennifer Borland’s students in the art history survey, ART 2613. As it has done several times in the past, Professor Borland’s class included student research on objects in the permanent collection. This spring, we are featuring student work both on the blog and in the galleries: check the museum website’s calendar to find out when you can hear students present about their research in person!

This week’s post is based on work completed by Amelia Clark, George Knapp, Ricardo Morales, and Laura Ridlon. They researched a briefcase made by anonymous craftsmen in Dakar, Senegal. In this excerpt from their research, they explore the briefcase’s relationship to the history of Senegal and they compare it to works of art from all over the world.

Briefcase, late 20th century, Senegal. Cans, commercial hardware, newsprint, 14 ¾ x 15 x 3 ¼ inches. Gift of Larry W. and Mattie R. Harms, 2011.001.037.

Briefcase, late 20th century, Senegal. Cans, commercial hardware, newsprint, 14 ¾ x 15 x 3 ¼ inches. Gift of Larry W. and Mattie R. Harms, 2011.001.037.

Slave trading began off the coast of Senegal in the mid-15th century. Those interested in the trading post were: Portugal, the Netherlands, Great Britain, and France. France gained control of the slave trade in the late 17th century, establishing itself firmly as the colonial power in the region. Eventually, France abolished slavery and missionary groups began to spread eastward into Senegal. This began the process of French colonialism in Dakar, the capital city of Senegal.

Briefcase, detail showing French-language comics and advertisements.

Briefcase, detail showing French-language comics and advertisements.

This briefcase was purchased by Larry and Mattie Harms outside a city dump in Dakar. We can see a connection to French language and culture—one of the results of imperialism—in the Astérix and Pif comics. We can also see the impact of more recent cultural imperialism in the advertisement for “Star Wars” and the American comic, Conan the Barbarian—both translated into French.

Briefcase, detail of advertisement for "Star Wars" toy.

Briefcase, detail of advertisement for “Star Wars” toy.

Purposefully or not, the layout of the comics within the briefcase also reflects these changes over time, with the French comics below giving way to American popular culture on top. This progression is echoed in transitions from comics and toys aimed at children on the bottom to those aimed at adolescents and adults on top, and from lighthearted storylines on the bottom to images of war and violence at the top.

Briefcase, detail of "Conan the Barbarian" comic.

Briefcase, detail of “Conan the Barbarian” comic.

Whether or not the creators of the briefcase intended this meaning, the briefcase apparently tells a story about the history of colonialism and globalization in Senegal.

Briefcase, exterior view.

Briefcase, exterior view, late 20th century, Senegal. Cans, commercial hardware, newsprint, 14 ¾ x 15 x 3 ¼ inches. Gift of Larry W. and Mattie R. Harms, 2011.001.037.

Commercialism is evident in the briefcase, as it is constructed out of post-consumer waste products like comic book pages and tomato paste cans. We might compare it to artists’ explorations of consumer culture such as Andy Warhol’s 1962 Campbell’s Soup Cans.

Andy Warhol, "Campbell’s Soup Cans," 1962. Polymer paint on canvas, collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” 1962. Polymer paint on canvas, collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Collage was also used by Hannah Höch in her earlier critique of conspicuous consumption and conservative politics in Weimar Germany, Cut With the Dada Kitchen Knife.

Hannah Höch, "Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany," 1919-20. Photomontage.

Hannah Höch, “Cut With the Kitchen Knife Dada Through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch of Germany,” 1919-20. Photomontage.

Although the briefcase shares the sense of apparently accidental contrast exemplified by Höch’s collage, it is unlike Dada collage because it has a clear sense of order and symmetry.

Ai Weiwei, "Forever," 2003. Bicycles frames, installation view.

Ai Weiwei, “Forever,” 2003. Bicycles frames, installation view.

In its use of found objects, the briefcase is also similar to the work of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. In Forever, Ai uses bicycle frames to create abstract work out of familiar objects.

Using found objects to create art can have both symbolic and practical value. Artist Mamadou Tall Diedhiou works in Senegal, like the unknown makers of our briefcase. In the brief video below, Diedhiou explains the motivations behind his use of discarded cell phones to create sculpture.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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