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Art Review

Once-Powerful Fetishes Open the Door to Their World

In 'Fetish: Art/Word,' contemporary works are juxtaposed with African artifacts in a look at the power of symbols and the history of the word.


Not many people know the etymology of the word "fetish," but if anyone ever called you a fetishist, you probably didn't take it as a compliment. Even if you weren't sure exactly what the word means, its dismissive tone was probably enough to convince you that its speaker had no respect for something near and dear to your heart.

At the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, a small exhibition juxtaposes a handful of antique African artifacts with a smattering of contemporary artworks to outline the way the word "fetish" has been used or misused over the last 600 years. Titled "Fetish: Art/Word," the handsome show was organized by graduate student Nizan Shaked. It begins clearly but gets muddled as it moves into the present.

The oldest objects are three solid gold mid-19th century ornaments made by the Asante, an Akan people who live in what is now Ghana. Although these embossed pieces resemble a necklace and a pair of wide bracelets, small holes at the edges of two suggest they were once attached to stools.

Wall-labels and a well-written pamphlet inform visitors that the decorative patterns hammered into the gold often represent proverbs, tales and riddles that formed an essential part of Asante history and identity. But rather than providing a single example of one of these stories (or even stating that their meanings have been lost), the exhibition's educational texts take us further back in time.

In the 15th century, gold ornaments like these were among the first items Portuguese traders and clergymen called fetisso or fetiche. With roots in the Portuguese feitico, meaning magical practice, and the Latin factilius, denoting artificiality, the term was derogatory. It went hand-in-glove with European imperialism, which squashed various forms of idolatry and culture in order to extend the domain of scientific rationality, not to mention capitalist economics.

But the way the Asante ornaments are displayed makes the imperialists appear to be the real fetishists. Set in velvet-lined leather cases that have been handcrafted in the shape of their contents, these pillaged treasures are treated like rare jewels whose value is enhanced by their mysteriousness. To the Asante, however, they were not mysterious. They were powerful. There's a big difference.

The people who originally used them knew exactly what stories they told and how they functioned. But the British, who shipped these examples to England when they sacked the Asante capital in 1874, didn't. They either melted them into ingots or ensconced them in decorative cases. Torn from their social fabric and stripped of their power, they became exotic emblems, mute souvenirs of a way of life that was being vanquished.

The point of this half of the exhibition is that the word "fetish" was coined by outsiders, who did not have an intimate relationship with the objects they appropriated. A dozen carved wood figures--made by the Yombe and Songye peoples in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo--drive the point home.

Ranging in height from 6 inches to 4 feet high, they originally functioned to resolve social disputes, negotiate deals between generations and enhance individual and collective fortune. People cemented their ties to a community by nailing strips of cloth to some, stuffing symbolic objects into small packs carried on the backs of others and encasing personal mementos in the glass-covered bellies of still others.

Today, these figures function as fascinating time capsules, windows to a world that looks magical from our perspective but was perfectly normal to those who lived in it. Visually, they're the highlight of the show. Adorned with shells, feathers, mirrors and the hides and horns of animals, they carry the silent wishes of the people who first used them.

It doesn't take a great leap of the imagination to see the connection between these enchanting artifacts and the eight contemporary works of art. All were made as vehicles for the desires of their users. All promote public interaction, representing the aspirations and fantasies of social groups. And all live or die by their capacity to have consequential effects on the lives of people who come into contact with them.

But that's not how the exhibition links them. Rather than relating the contemporary works to the African artifacts, it argues that the eight contemporary artists use their works to analyze the idea of fetishism. Which is exactly what the first half of the show does. "Fetish: Art/Word" claims that there is no fundamental difference between making a work of art and organizing an exhibition.

In this way, it ignores the visual power of the best contemporary works, which are more like the Asante, Yombe and Songye artifacts than the curator lets on.

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