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Art Intersects with Life at the Fowler
Portrait masks such as this striking 19th-century specimen are used for ceremonial purposes by the Tsimshian peoples of British Columbia, Canada. (Images courtesy of the Fowler Museum. Photo by Don Cole.)

Art Intersects with Life at the Fowler

"Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives" features some 250 objects from the Fowler's permanent collection--the art of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas.

This article was first published in UCLA Today.

By Ajay Singh

ONE OF THE benefits of scholarship in the arts is the sheer variety of experiences available to museum-goers. What begins as a sense of wonder turns into knowledge — perhaps even wisdom — about how art constantly reshapes the world.

Such a dynamic experience is exactly what's on offer at an exhibition at the Fowler Museum. Titled "Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives," the exhibition features the art of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Americas. On display are some 250 of the finest objects from the Fowler's permanent collection, a visual delight of artistic achievement dating from the first millennium B.C. to the present.

The exhibition opened Sept. 30 and has the distinction of being the first-ever Fowler event to go on long-term display — so there's plenty of time to catch it. The exhibition is thematically organized into four sections: art and action, art and knowledge, art and power, and art and transformation. The aim is to introduce viewers to the idea that the artistic genius of the artifacts lies in the "combination of their outward beauty and inner power and efficacy," explained Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, the Fowler's deputy director and chief curator.

A case in point is the "power figure" in the "art and action" section. Made mainly from wood, metal and cloth by the Yombe peoples of the Congo in the 18th and 19th centuries, the figure embodies a judicial authority who possesses supernatural powers.

Besides having the ability to incriminate, the figure, the Yombe believe, can heal and protect humans as well as their body politic. Pounded into the figure's torso and arms are dozens of nails and blades meant to rouse the spirit and testify to oaths sworn in legal proceedings. Often, curative materials such as ashes and herbs are packed into cavities located in the figure's stomach and head.

A set of four ancient ceramic pots made by the Moche peoples of Peru over a period of 700 years before the birth of Christ offers another good example of the elaborate relationship between form and function in art. Etched on the surface of the more recent pots are fine lines rendered with such a high degree of realism that they represent a pictorial history of the Moche civilization, which left no writing system.

A special gallery within the exhibition, "Fowler in Focus," features "Flames of Devotion: Oil Lamps from South and Southeast Asia and the Himalayas," a remarkable collection of some 50 intricate Indian oil lamps and incense burners. This is the museum's debut installation of new acquisitions that will change three times a year, providing fresh experiences for repeat visitors.

One of the most intriguing and poignant works on display is "Tree of Death," by Veronica Castillo Hernandez — a stark contrast to the universally popular "Tree of Life" motif. The ceramic work is described as a "visual elegy" for the unsolved murders of more than 400 young women and girls, most of them poor factory workers, since 1993 on the Mexican border near El Paso, Texas.

Just about every artifact in this exhibition belies its appearance, thereby provocatively pushing the boundaries of the knowable:

· Videos of Native American dances weave cosmologies grounded not in metaphysics, but in the action of the body.

· An African headrest isn't just a wooden support during sleep, but "the concentrated essence of a human."

· A Japanese basket isn't meant only to hold meticulously arranged flowers, but signifies impermanence as the basket withers with time, yearning to return to nature.

To learn more about this exhibition, go to www.fowler.ucla.edu.