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PRESERVING

Enter the world of doors

These portals are an entryway into the art and history of many non-Western cultures.

June 21, 2007|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

WE probably don't think much about the rather bland doors we pass through in our daily lives. The one we close behind us with relief, at home after a hectic day. The one we open gently to check on a sleeping child. The doors we enter on our way to worship, to visit parents or to shop. Each of these doors triggers a shift in our emotions, a transition from one state of mind or social context to the next. Yet the doors themselves reflect none of that.

In many other cultures, doors are not so taken for granted. They are made by artists to symbolize the purposes they serve. They are honored as objects that divide culturally important spaces and as metaphors for passages through life. They are carved, embossed, embroidered, beaded or painted. They are art.

Twenty such doors from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the ancient Americas will be on display beginning Sunday at the Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Their brilliantly painted colors and animated carved figures announce to all who approach that a meaningful threshold is about to be crossed. They may broadcast a love of family or nature. They may allude to the cycle of birth and death. They may illustrate a family's rank or wealth, its loyalty to an earthly ruler or to the deities. They may picture the history, through generations, of a family that has lived in a particular house.

Polly Roberts, the Fowler's deputy director and chief curator, says the idea for the exhibition came about because doors are a major element in the museum's collection, which covers non-Western objects from 3,000 years ago to the present.

"We realized we had many important doors worthy of exhibition. Each served a very particular purpose in the culture from which it came. All played highly symbolic roles and have deep cultural meaning." And they are the work of important artists who bring delight with their hand-painted, carved or embroidered images of frolicking birds and beasts, benevolent or fierce gods, and of humans doing what they have done since time began. One door from India is carved top to bottom with people shown at work, at play and in the act of love.

Some doors are viewed as altars, Roberts says. "In a sense, they are thresholds to divinity. They facilitate passage from the secular to the sacred space."

Speaking metaphorically, she says, some African doors in the exhibition are like shrines in the cultures they come from. Four doors from the Yoruba culture in Nigeria are a fine example, she says. "The Yoruba are one of the most important ethnic groups on the African continent and in the African diaspora. One door on view is a very large, very grand double door with motifs and iconography that tell us it's dedicated to Shango, the god of thunder and lightning.

"The Yoruba have a pantheon of gods, not unlike the Greeks.... Each has a name, a personality and a set of qualities. Shango is fiery, unpredictable and capricious. But he can also bestow children upon his devotees and bring good fortune. So these particular doors function as shrines where individuals can meet and pay homage to this god."

Roy Hamilton, co-curator of the exhibition and the museum's curator for Asian and Pacific collections, says some doors mark a domestic sphere for women and are decorated to denote that gender-identifying fact.

"Another very common theme is protection. A door in the exhibition from Sumatra, for example, has a large carved lizard, which is a protective figure in that culture. Another, an embroidered textile door piece from India, circa 1970, features Ganesha, the elephant-headed deity who removes obstacles."

This brilliantly colored door piece, with its vibrant array of happy chickens, cows, lions, horses, birds, flowers and flute-playing nymphs, shows Ganesha at top and center, ready to bestow blessings on all who pass through the door below. A character in Paul Theroux's new travel book, "The Elephanta Suite," perhaps best describes Ganesha: " ... fat and cheerful and beneficent, bringing luck to any enterprise, seated on his big bottom with jewels on his domed head and his floppy trunk and his thick legs.... "

Most doors in the show were made in the 19th and early 20th century, Hamilton says, and all were selected for the artistry that illustrates their intended use.

"Some spectacular 19th century doorway panels from the Paiwan people of Taiwan came from an ancestral house. They were carved to represent the history of the house and all the people who've inhabited it down through multiple generations."

Another door from New Guinea, he says, is simply a tall narrow board and wouldn't be recognized by most viewers as a door.

It's carved from a tree trunk and elaborately painted. It's placed, along with other such boards, to form the facade of a men's ceremonial house. "Only one of these boards has a hole near the bottom, which marks it as the door. The men climb through that hole to get in or out of the house," Hamilton says.

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