'Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art'
Opens at the Fowler Museum at UCLA Oct. 14
Writing systems have flourished in Africa for thousands of years and have contributed significantly to the global history of writing, yet they have received little attention outside the continent. Now, for the first time, an exhibition presents artworks from a range of periods, regions, genres and peoples that testify to the richness and diversity of African scripts and graphic forms of communication.
"Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art” — on display at the Fowler Museum from Oct. 14 through Feb. 17, 2008 — features more than 100 important and visually compelling works of art and explores the ways they creatively incorporate script and graphic symbols to communicate multiple messages and intentions.
"The intellectual complexity, artistic beauty and historical uses of African scripts demand a wider, more inclusive definition of writing,” said exhibition co-curator Polly Nooter Roberts, deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler Museum. "Writing has, for the most part, been limited to phonetic alphabets, despite the great diversity and cultural richness of inscription systems worldwide.”
An introductory section of "Inscribing Meaning” focuses on the history of particular African scripts, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Vai and Mende from Liberia and Sierra Leone, the ancient Tifinagh script of the Tuareg people, Nsibidi from Nigeria, the liturgical Ge'ez script from Ethiopia, and others. The use in Africa of imported writing systems, such as Arabic and Roman scripts, is also addressed here, and selected works show how contemporary African artists engage with scripts or invent their own.
The sections of the exhibition that follow contemplate themes of body inscription, sacred writing, power and politics, artists' books, and words in art.
Inscribing the Body
From early Egyptian works to the most contemporary art forms, African artists have used the body as a primary "canvas” for inscriptions — such as scarification or tattooing — and as a site for displaying the graphically rich materials found on clothing or jewelry. The first section of "Inscribing Meaning” explores body decoration with amuletic jewelry, textiles used as garments, and representations of the inscribed body. An intricate wooden headrest carved by the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo depicts female figures and reflects many Luba conventions of beauty, including the graphic language of scarification.
Contemporary works by Berni Searle, Ghada Amer and Iké Udé explore the subject in a variety of ways: South African artist Searle works with henna dyes to consider the complex notion of the word "stain,” Amer addresses text and the body through embroidered body suits and Udé's elegant photographs recall the practice of uli body and wall motifs of his Igbo heritage while simultaneously referencing high fashion.
In religious traditions the world over, writing and graphic inscription are endowed with sacred attributes, for they are considered both the embodiment of the divine and a powerful means for conveying religious teachings. In Africa, specialized forms of writing and graphic inscription are usually the domain of highly trained (and often religious) practitioners, from scribes and poets to priests, monks and healers.
This section of the exhibition explores a wide range of religious objects that incorporate script, including an Egyptian inner coffin lid, a monumental talismanic healing cloth inscribed with Muslim prayers and magic squares, an Ethiopian Orthodox prayer scroll, and several contemporary works, including a painted board from Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk's "Manuscript” series that combines the form of a Quranic tablet with Nsibidi signs from his Nigerian heritage.
In different African social, political and cultural contexts, works of art often incorporate scripts as a way to express how power is accrued through the acquisition of specialized knowledge and skills, such as healing with herbal medicines, communicating with the spirit world and writing. In creating works of art that serve those who guard and exercise power — such as warriors, leaders and members of religious or political associations — artists rely on the symbolic significance of specific materials, images and, at times, inscriptions to imbue objects with greater efficacy and visual potency.
In this section of "Inscribing Meaning,” an Asafo flag from Ghana is displayed to show how it challenges rivals through proverbs-related imagery and appliqué inscriptions, while symbolic weapons inscribed with pseudo-Arabic demonstrate how they bolster the aura and power of their owners. Masks and textiles worn in Nigeria by members of a men's association are embellished with Nsibidi signs and are presented along with numerous examples of how words and images unite in African art to convey information and communicate power.
Artists often use inscription to detail the discrepancies and ironies of colonial narratives of conquest and to explore how writing has dictated the telling of Africa's histories. South African artist Kim Berman, for example, incorporates texts from newspaper and television accounts of current events in her suite of 18 prints titled "Playing Cards of the Truth Commission, an Incomplete Deck” (1999), recognizing the media's power to mold public opinion during the commission's deliberations.
Other works in this section, such as those by Durant Sihlali, evoke the practice of graffiti as a way to bring ideas into the public sphere. Among the most compelling examples of the use of word and image for political ends are several Congolese popular paintings that incorporate French, Lingala, Swahili and other languages into captions to support the works' visual narratives.
Words Unbound and Wordplay
While contemporary art is interspersed throughout this exhibition, the two final sections are devoted exclusively to the works of contemporary artists. "Words Unbound” features 10 contemporary artists' books, including those by South African artist Sue Williamson and Senegal's Moussa Tine. The final section of "Inscribing Meaning” highlights the fascination with scripts and words manifested in the work of several internationally recognized contemporary African artists, including Rachid Koraïchi from Algeria, Victor Ekpuk from Nigeria and Wosene Worke Kosrof from Ethiopia.
"Inscribing Meaning” is a collaboration between the Fowler Museum and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. The curatorial team includes Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, Christine Mullen Kreamer of the Smithsonian, Elizabeth Harney of the University of Toronto, and independent scholar and curator Allyson Purpura. An accompanying catalog — authored and edited by the co-curators — includes essays by leading scholars of art history, history and linguistics and by African artists represented in the exhibition.
The Fowler is open Wednesdays through Sundays from noon to 5 p.m. and on Thursdays from noon to 8 p.m. The museum is closed Mondays and Tuesdays. The Fowler Museum, part of UCLA's School of the Arts and Architecture, is located in the north part of the UCLA campus. Admission is free. Parking is available for $8 in Lot 4. For more information, the public may call (310) 825-4361 or visit www.fowler.ucla.edu.