The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) exhibition entitled The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts features 100 iconic African figures, masks, initiation objects, reliquary guardians, and textiles that explore how the arts reflect cultural ideas of vision and visuality. The show celebrates artists as agents of insight and transformation—the ability to capture the transition between life stages.
In a conversation with Dr. Polly Nooter Roberts, consulting curator of African art at LACMA and professor of World Arts and Cultures at UCLA, we discuss the theme behind the show, the star pieces that currently grace the show floor, and her recommendations on how collectors can use their ‘inner eyes’ to build world class collections of classic African art.
I lived in Africa from the age of five years old, my Dad joined the foreign service when I was two. In 1965 we moved to Liberia and stayed there for two and a half years. My Mom was an artist then and my father, although in the field of international development, always had an aesthetic eye. They both became entranced by the arts of Africa and started to collect. I was surrounded by Bamana hunter shirts from Mali and Dan masks from Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire, objects that they could find locally. Many evenings, after dinner, dealers would come to our home with a big sack filled with objects and my parents would pour through them. They continued to collect when they came back to Washington D.C.; they were collecting very strongly by then. They became absorbed. Like most, they found out that everyone takes risks early in their collecting careers but those risks trained their eyes.
Why do I start with my parents? When I left my doctoral fieldwork in DR Congo, the man who worked with me as a cook asked me for a picture of my parents. I asked him why. He said that without my parents, I wouldn’t be here. That’s why I answered your question by first talking about my parents. Without them, I would never have embarked on my path. Because of their interest in cultures and arts, my parents eventually formed an important collection of African art, which is now primarily at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. I grew up with these objects, they are part of the tapestry of my life.
I visited my Mom and Dad during one of their postings to Tanzania. We went up north to Northern Tanzania, Arusha, and the Masai sacred mountain of Lengai, and then across the border into Kenya. There I fell in love. I literally, on that one trip, would say that I found my calling. And my calling was to work with Africa for the rest of my life. I was much more oriented towards the arts than development work, and my father told me that I didn’t have to do what I thought was the most humanitarian thing to do. Instead, he suggested that I should focus on doing the thing that I was best at because it would make the greatest impact. Whatever you do in life requires hard work, passion, and such a commitment that you want to pick something that you’re most in love with. What I loved most were the arts and cultures of Africa.
Following my BA in Philosophy and French Literature at Scripps College, I went to Columbia University for my MA and PhD in Art History because in my mind, if I was going to study African art, I needed to have an art history degree. However, having an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and French was crucial because I work mostly in Francophone countries—I spent two years conducting doctoral research among Luba peoples of the DR Congo, and then fifteen years traveling back and forth to Senegal with my husband, Al Roberts, and our kids for our research on contemporary Sufi arts—and African art is all about philosophy.
"They are vehicles, repositories of knowledge, and so beautiful."
These are objects that carry worldviews and present very complex systems of thought. Entire worlds are embedded within these works of art. In a lot of ways, what I feel I do is to help teach people about the richness of diverse African cultural worldviews through works of art. They are vehicles, repositories of knowledge, and so beautiful. African art has such aesthetic impact but also intellectual impact. All of this initially drew me and has continued to inspire me 30 years later.
Westerners call these objects from Africa ‘art’. I always say that if we talk about an object from a culture that may not have a word for ‘art’, that doesn’t make the object any less artistic. These are works of artistic brilliance. And not just anyone can create these pieces—these are works created by someone who has apprenticed, has been schooled for years, and has worked with master artists. These objects were created by artists who had to follow certain parameters in creation but still had their individual aesthetic impulses.
Traditions are important in the arts of Africa but what’s also important is that these traditions continue to change and keep up with the times by responding to the needs of the moment and politics of the day. Dr. Rowland Abiodun describes this concept as the ‘the artist as explorer’—how the best artists in Africa, even for traditional arts, are those that work within a paradigm but who can also go to the very edges of the known world and push just that little bit further. That defines a great artist, the ability to be respectful of traditional expectations whilst also being able to go to edges of what we find comfortable, thereby introducing the viewer to something new.
It’s these traditions, innovative artists, and inspiring African philosophies that keep me enthused and moved by these objects. They hold so much knowledge and are capable of teaching us so much. We have much to learn from African aesthetic philosophies.
"Oro, the essence of communication, takes place in the eyes."—Yoruba axiom cited in Abiodun 1994:77
That is what The Inner Eye is about. The exhibition introduces the Yoruba concept of ojú-inú, which allows certain individuals to see the most essential quality or character—the iwa—of a given thing or person. Ojú inú is a form of insight and introspective brilliance, and often enables transcendence from one state of being to the next, or from one world to another. In that context, and indeed most African art contexts, vision is understood as more active than static. Vision is not just about seeing and being seen; it is a conduit to transformation. Artists, healers, mothers, deities, and sometimes rulers are among the agents in society who have the special quality of The Inner Eye. They can perceive that which is imperceptible, that which is not readily apparent to the ordinary person who is not gifted with the power of insight.
The idea of ‘insight’ comes up throughout the exhibition, which celebrates artists and performers as visionaries who bring these works to life. But the exhibition goes beyond this initial ‘insight’ to also investigate the relationship between the visible and invisible among many cultures with their own concepts of insight.
Artists are among the rare people who can not only perceive invisible worlds but who can also manifest those worlds physically in works of art, bridging visible and invisible realities. They can manifest and make tangible the unseen. They also create objects that are conduits to other realms or other states of being. African arts are not just nouns, they are verbs. They act and have the power to transform and make things happen—to heal, protect, and to promote well-being. At the same time they enable people to transcend physical and spiritual states.
Considering a spectrum of African artworks through this theme reminds museum visitors that there is not one single way of seeing, but that every culture imbues the act of seeing with its own values, attributes, and potentialities. It encourages visitors to understand seeing and looking from African perspectives.
There are so many objects I love, so many. There are objects from the 13th century and others from the 19th. Figures, masks, reliquary guardians, initiation objects are among the masterworks displayed. What characterises almost all of these objects is the idea I shared earlier, of how we have so much still to learn from African perspectives with regard to concepts of vision and visuality. Vision is the act of looking and visuality can be thought of as the social framework and social expectations around looking and seeing.
In some African cultures for example, it is socially unacceptable to look an elder in the eye. Likewise, Yoruba kings are forbidden from looking inside their beaded crowns empowered with sacred substances. Discretion and respect are often appropriate modes of viewing, and certain contexts require that one courteously avert the eyes rather than stare. These cultural behaviours run counter to the museum experience where we are invited to scrutinise objects. The fact however is that when an artist endows an object with The Inner Eye, that object has the ability to respond—it’s a call and response.
For this exhibition I chose objects that have interesting eyes. They lead us to explore the variations in representations of eyes and vision. Why is it that we are always compelled to look into another person’s eyes? There are a myriad of works that present innovative approaches to visuality and to the eyes. I tried to include many approaches to the gaze.
At the outset of the show, you see spectacularly exceptional masks. Some have indirect gazes that don’t engage the viewer, while others have multiple and/or projecting eyes of power and protection. There are variations between the inner-directed gaze (demonstrating spiritual insight), the downcast gaze, assertive gazes, and multiplicities of eyes and heads. Multiple eyes speak to vigilance, heightened awareness, and all-seeing powers.
When you get past that introduction to the gallery, another object that beautifully expresses the idea of an Inner Eye is the Yoruba Gelede mask. It was made by men and performed by men to honour mothers and elderly women of the community. Mothers are sometimes perceived to be more powerful than the deities called orisha. Honouring mothers through dance, ensures the continued blessings from mothers for the community. To me, the Gelede mask embodies The Inner Eye. It conveys, through the depiction of the face, the tension between concealment and revelation. At the same time, it also embodies beauty—the artist had the skill to bring The Inner Eye to bear in this mask.
Next is the large beaked mask from the Mano group. This presents another very different example of insight. On the outside we see a typical mask for the Poro men’s association, a mask representing the sacred hornbill. But look on the inside and you see the interior of the mask completely inscribed with letters, Arabic verses and Sufi mystical squares inked in the wood. This is what Sufis call batin, ‘the hidden side’ inherent to every visible reality. These inscriptions speak to the knowledge that the wearer would possess, power and knowledge that is shared directly between the spirit and the dancer.
Beyond that I really love the Bamana mother and child, dating from the late 13th century to mid-14th. It’s in a section of the exhibition called ‘The Maternal Gaze’—that very powerful gaze a mother and child alone can share, a gaze that begins at birth and that is so beautifully captured in many works of African art, a gaze that expresses the most essential and intimate of human relationships. This figure was made for the Gwan association that helps women through the challenges of conception and childbirth. It was brought out every year, washed, adorned, and anointed with shea butter. Over time it has acquired this beautiful surface. The fact that it is weathered and fragmentary doesn’t take anything away from the power of the object. The contemplative downcast gaze of this strong mother emanates pride and protection, the pinnacle of the impact African art can have.
It is vital to go to important museums, those that have strong collections of African art. Spend lots of time looking and reading. Read the volumes of African Arts journal going back over the past fifty years. Any publications on African art that are written by well known scholars should be poured over.
I think that honestly, what helps tune the eye of a collector is seeing pieces they are drawn to and considering acquiring, then going to books, museums, and galleries and comparing with similar objects they can find. Don’t look at any random object on a random website. Focus on comparing with works in important collections. There are databases out there of important collections. Look at the online databases of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
In art history we are trained to compare and contrast. There’s something to that. It helps to refine the eye and you can begin to tell the difference in quality between great and mediocre works, as well as to identify reproductions—of which there so many these days. It’s a slow process but it’s a really exciting one. I’ve never known a true collector who hasn’t loved the process, and been utterly passionate about it, even when it’s frustrating.
So even though the show is not about collecting, the theme of the show resonates with collectors because that’s what a good collector has, The Inner Eye.
The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts runs in the Resnick Pavilion at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art until July 9, 2017.