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ART REVIEW : 'Elephant,' 'Sleeping Beauties': African Riches at UCLA

April 12, 1993|WILLIAM WILSON | TIMES ART CRITIC

UCLA's Museum of Cultural History has long been among the town's most important artistic and ethnographic resources. Now, as the Fowler Museum of Cultural History, it has its own building. That's space to spread its riches and show what it can really do as an institution of national and international significance.

Anyone who hasn't seen its two ongoing African exhibitions should give themselves a break. "Elephant: The Animal and Its Ivory in African Culture" offers more than 250 mesmerizing objects. It's the most ambitious organizational effort ever concocted by this museum and one of the most moving.

"Elephant" is like a three-dimensional PBS nature special acted out in everything from objects that suggest the creature's ancient origins to exquisitely carved tusks and soap boxes selling "elephant power." It joins a larger cultural rumination on the nature of the human animal. The ensemble seems to ask again, "How can humankind be so endlessly energetic and inventive and, at the same instant, so obliviously destructive?"

Maybe it has something to do with the Homo sapiens ego. Elephants are the planet's largest land animal. Their actual and symbolic power is awesome. Tamed, they help man with the force of a four-ton bulldozer. Their great size and longevity betoken wisdom and endurance. Their tails serve African leaders as whisks that signal the power to solve all problems. Kids the world over love elephants' peanut-nibbling serpentine trunks and floppy ears, even if only from seeing "Dumbo."

Yet when human and elephant are depicted together in these magical objects the mortal is always hugely larger--witness an elegant "Female Elephant Rider" from the Mende people of Sierra Leone. At bottom, this failure to keep things in proportion has led to the near extinction of a glorious beast.

Exhibition literature is at pains to point out that African peoples and the elephant lived together in harmony for centuries. The animal was hunted with ritual respect and all parts of its body put to important practical or ceremonial use.

Among the Ngbandi people, for example, the elephant was central to their creation myth. An impressive group of dance masks shows a range of empathic interpretation. An elephant mask from the Bamum captures the animal's flexibility in distilled abstract form. The Idoma show the same subject under tension, and it looks like a three-barreled machine gun.

Elephant tusks are the perfect shape for horns and trumpets. There are few more impressive objects here than these carved ivories. They began as musical instruments or ritual treasures. Examples from the Benin and others have the solemn nobility of the European Middle Ages.

After the arrival of European explorers and traders, ivory served to make objets de luxe for wealthy Anglos, who brought along their usual voracious appetite for things and their briskly efficient guns. It was gunpowder that tipped the ecological balance between man and elephant. We do seem to have a penchant for annihilating anything bigger than us.

And trivializing it. The show winds up with a Victorian living room decorated with ivory nick-knacks, piano keys, umbrella handles, fans, shoe horns. . . .

It ends with a tuskless elephant's skull and photos of their butchered bodies.

*

The museum's deputy director Dornan H. Ross organized "Elephant" and edited the 400 pachyderm pages of its catalogue. He co-organized the other current exhibition, "Sleeping Beauties," with University of Iowa art history Professor William Dewey.

It centers around a collection of headrests, but is really a show celebrating the gift of the Jerome L. Joss collection to the museum. Joss--a former Chicago ad man who coined the term Posturepedic --retired to Los Angeles and tailored his acquisitions to fill gaps in the museum's holdings.

The range of the collection is extensive, running from the more traditional artistic forms to a group of furnishings and architectural ornament from the urban and Islamic Swahili of East Africa. Quality is impressive. Sculpture of full figures runs from a large Nigerian mystical male holding snakes to a small Malawi female who has the rapt innocence of a maiden. Masks bracket emotional eloquence. A concave, buck-toothed face from Liberia is sensual and introspective. Another example from the area is made of everything from horn to wood and rope and has the ferocity of an African Minotaur. With rare exceptions, Western artists still haven't figured out how to make this kind of combination of the felt and the formal.

There is something both bemusing and amusing about the headrest collection. The impressive part is the way these little objects of use--most often in wood--can be so aesthetically gratifying. Generically they consist of a slightly bowed cross-piece held horizontally on a more or less elaborate base.

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