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Links That Defy Culture and Time

A museum finds that pre-colonial Africans and a modern American have more in common than it might seem.

November 19, 2000|SCARLET CHENG | Scarlet Cheng is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Last year, Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator at the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, paid a visit to Jan and Richard Baum to view their collection of African art. There was an opening in the Fowler's exhibition calendar for the next fall, and Roberts was considering material from the Baums' collection for a show on her specialty, the art of Luba, a pre-colonial kingdom in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

But what electrified Roberts was something new--Los Angeles artist Alison Saar's "Chaos in the Kitchen," a larger-than-life-size bust of a woman, her skin made out of patterned tin and her head crowned with a jolted tangle of wire hair hiding a comb, a magnet, even a miniature Eiffel Tower. Roberts found it powerful in itself, but it also reminded her of the elaborate female coiffures depicted in Luba sculpture.

"I was just taken by this piece. I just loved it," Roberts recalls. "I began to think this might be an innovative way to talk about female image across cultures. Luba [art] is fascinating, but I thought it might have more relevance if it had a counterpart in American contemporary art."

In December, she invited Saar to lunch, and they showed each other photographs and slides--Roberts shared images of Luba art; Saar's were of her own works. "It was just amazing how many themes emerged in common," she says.

That compare-and-contrast meeting has now been made into an exhibition: "Body Politics: The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of Alison Saar," which just opened at the Fowler Museum.


Standing in the gallery at the Fowler, where the show is undergoing final touches, both Saar and Roberts want to be clear about what their dialogue has created.

The exhibition is not about establishing direct, cause-and-effect connections between Luba art, made in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries by men, and Saar's turn-of-the-21st century works.

"We're not suggesting that just because [works] look alike that they are directly influenced," Roberts says. "Of course, it's not totally accidental. Alison's work is informed by African art, but she's not copying it. Her work is [also] informed by her experience as an American and an African American."

"I've always been interested in African art," Saar acknowledges. "I studied [it] while I was at Scripps College under Samella Lewis. It's definitely part of my vocabulary, and part of why I even make art, the idea of the art going beyond and having some impact on society and the spirit being imbued in it."

In formal terms, the works may be only indirectly related, but the exhibition strives to create the same jolt of recognition that intrigued Roberts. It interweaves 86 objects, placing them in thematic juxtapositions.

For example, the pieces chosen to open the exhibition grapple with stereotypes and reality under the heading "Whose Body Is This." One is Saar's "Bain Froid," a near-life-size woman in a washtub, one arm tossed over her head, the other holding a towel over her shoulder. The other piece is a carved wood figure, a royal emblem with a complex coiffure, scarification at the belly, hands placed on either side of breasts.

According to Saar, "Bain Froid" is a deliberate response to romanticized, objectified portrayals of "native" women in Western art. Her bather, meant to depict a rural Southerner who has drawn water from a river for a cold bath, both partakes of the genre and confronts it. "Look at her, she's very tough," says Saar. "She has a certain defiance to her."

In the catalog that accompanies "Body Politics," Roberts explains that the Luba figure might give the same exotic impression as, say, Gaugin's females. "Westerners . . . perceive it in terms of the stereotype of sexuality and fertility," she points out, "without understanding [its] dual meanings."

Some of the organizing themes make more obvious connections. In "Working Women," all the artworks morph the female form into tools.

"A lot of Luba emblems are axes, staffs, scepters, stools," Roberts explains, "seemingly functional objects that always incorporate the female form." The tools are actually ceremonial, and female imagery is used because in Luba culture women represent power and spirituality.

Saar's "Working Women" pieces are also often about power, but she believes they're also about powerlessness. A woman grows out of a sledgehammer head ("Sledgehammer Mama"), or becomes a broom ("Clean Sweep") or a hoe ("Ho"), or her face merges with the bottom of an old cast-iron skillet.

The largest grouping in the Fowler show is "Bodies of Knowledge," which notes the emphasis on hair, breasts and skin scarification in Saar's work and Luba art.

Over the last decade, Saar has created many heads and full-body sculptures in which hair features prominently. There are variations on the theme of "Chaos in the Kitchen," in which objects and ideas are caught in a thicket of hair: In "Conked," a black woman is swallowing, perhaps drowning in, her own straightened hair.

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