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Remembering history through art

September 28, 2003|Robin Wright | Robin Wright is chief diplomatic correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. She has spent more than 20 years abroad, visiting more than 130 countries, and now lives in Washington, D.C.

I collect moments of history. My home is filled with revolutions, uprisings and wars.

From the eruption of Iran's Islamic revolution to the demise of the Soviets' communist revolution, through wars in Africa, the Middle East and Asia, and during uprisings from Johannesburg to Jerusalem, I've sought at least one piece of art to capture the turmoil, tragedy or the human pathos of each experience.

The collection has converted my townhouse into an eclectic museum chronicling the past three decades of global change. Every day it reminds me of the extraordinary times in which I've lived. Others see the objects merely as art. Years, even decades, later, I still see the events and environments that produced them.

One of the pieces that started the collection is a large oil painting, now hanging above a fireplace, that I bought during the first black uprising in Soweto, the pitiful blacks-only suburb of Johannesburg. The uprising began after schoolchildren peacefully protested new rules about instruction in Afrikaans, the language of white Dutch settlers and a foreign tongue for young blacks.

I was in Soweto when South African police responded June 16, 1976, with tear gas and then bullets, igniting months of fury over the larger issue of apartheid. Hundreds died.

A white South African woman who sold art for black artists out of her home carefully unrolled the canvas--and it instantly grabbed me. In warm golds and reds and greens, the abstract depicted two African boys playing a small drum and a thin recorder. It exuded simple joy.

The artist was Hargreaves Ntukwana, who lived in a black township and was then among a small group of emerging artists. His favorite technique was to blow diluted oils, usually strong sunny colors, onto canvas or paper. He wiped away the excess, leaving a background with energy and movement. In black ink, he then drew figures out of overlapping and conjoined round shapes that created a sense of rhythmic action.

To this day, visitors often comment on the winsomeness of the figures. A cabinet minister from Jordan who came for tea a few years ago remarked, "Oh, how lovely. You have a picture of E.T."

Ntukwana, now deceased, later produced masses of this genre for European and U.S. galleries. Like all my art, commercial value or potential never influenced my choices. During the grim days of getting tear-gassed with black kids or covering other gruesome aspects of apartheid, the big canvas offered relief. It made me smile. It still does.

Among four large wooden sculptures on lighted pedestals in my living room is a kondi, a "power figure" or fetish used by medicine men for magic in the battle between good and evil. I acquired it during a 1977 war in Zaire. The conflict became known as the "termite war" because of the giant red-clay termite hills that rose several feet high, offering cover to fighters, and because Katangese rebels steadily nibbled away at territory around one of Africa's richest mineral deposits.

The kondi's roughly carved body is studded with dozens of old metal pieces, some wrapped with bits of cloth. The bellybutton area has been carved out, stuffed with small indiscernible items and covered with reflecting glass. One raised arm holds an arrowhead-like dagger, indicating its intent was to help hunt wrongdoers. Kondis were considered so powerful they were often kept in their own huts.

I bought the piece in the village of Mutshatsha. I worked for CBS at the time and the camera crew--incredulous that I paid $90 for something it thought was so ugly, refused to help transport the kondi with our gear, so I hauled it around for days in an old cotton flour sack.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art opened a decade later. The piece Time magazine selected to illustrate its coverage was almost identical to mine.

After bouncing all over the world with me over the years, the kondi's nose is no longer all quite there. But it's still exquisitely ugly. And I still love it.

My museum also includes many memorable pieces from years of traveling in Iran during the revolution and its own eight-year war with Iraq. One of 10 miniatures on my dining room wall--a warrior riding his steed during Persia's medieval period of greatness--was supposedly painted with the single eyelash of a squirrel.

As the collection has grown, finding ways to display it has required creativity. A kitchen wall and a window seat are decorated with Iranian gabbehs, the unusually thick but starkly simple tribal carpets woven by former nomads, mainly women. Each one is unique and inspired by folk motifs. Small figures or animals, which emerge from the weaver's imagination, seem to wander across each carpet's solid field.

I either know the story depicted in each carpet or I've made one up from the experiences of that trip.

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