The Fowler at UCLA has just turned 50 and to celebrate this milestone, they are honoring their donors old and new by praising the generosity that has made it possible to build up an amazing collection in only five decades.. First and foremost of these benefactors showcased in a series of exhibitions collectively titled “Fowler at 50″, is the Wellcome Trust, which donated the massive Wellcome collection in 1965 – all 30,000 pieces of it - mainly from Oceania and Africa.
This gift is celebrated by a showing of some of its rarest objects. It is titled “Maori Cloaks – Maori Voices” and presents 13 of these fascinating garments which are being exhibited by the Fowler for the first time. Many tribal art enthusiasts know the superb feather cloaks worn by persons of status on Hawaii, but are less aware of the traditions of woven and feathered cloak making among the Maori people of Aoteorea -New Zealand, who developed their own weaving and knotting techniques.
Among the Maori people, each of these cloaks would be regarded as a taonga or heirloom treasure worn by a venerated ancestor and imbued with his or her manna or personal power.
Its is rare to have 13 of these priceless and fragile objects on display in one place. and the Fowler’s Senior Curator, Roy W Hamilton, has recruited four Maori textile conservators and tribal representatives to assist in presenting and interpreting the cloaks.
The Wellcome collection has a fascinating background story. British pharmaceuticals millionaire Henry Wellcome was fascinated by tribal cultures from early childhood and amassed a huge personal collection with the aim of furthering international understanding by exhibiting it in a purpose-built museum. Forty years after his death, this dream had not been realised, and the Trustees therefore donated the collection to the UCLA museum because it shared Wellcome’s ideals.
Of course the Fowler is much more than the custodian of the Wellcome Trust collection. Other major donors include Jerome L Joss, who donated his extensive African and South East Asian collections, including an extensive collection of headrests published in his book “Sleeping Beauties”, and Samuel Eilenberg, who donated the world’s most extensive collection of tribal betel chewing equipment. Best of all, the Fowler continues to be supported by public gifts of art and money and is still acquiring works to fill gaps and update its collection with contemporary cultural works - it is a museum of living cultures as well as the past.
It is appropriate, therefore, that the second Pacific exhibition in this birthday series celebrates not one single donor, but many. Its focus is the Sepik, PNG’s river of art and, more specifically, on a period in the 1960s when American collectors became enthralled by the Sepik River as an art producing area that could rival African art for its originality and energy. Titled “From the Sepik to Los Angeles – art in migration”, it is drawn from the Fowler’s holdings of 45,000 Sepik art works, of which a staggering 75% were individual donations made between 1963 – 1969.
What prompted this tremendous interest in the Sepik among US collectors during this 6 year period ? And how did it affect the artists producing the art in PNG as well as the American collectors who were clamouring for it with the same eagerness that gripped European collectors in the 1920s? These are some of the questions raised by the co-curators of this exhibition, the Fowler’s Roy W. Hamilton, and respected Californian field collector, researcher and art dealer Michael Hamson.
The impressive African holdings of the Fowler are also represented by two exhibitions. The first, “Double Fortune, Double Trouble – art for twins among the Yoruba”explores the power and prevalence of “two-ness” in Yorùbá art and thought -
as expressed in the famous Ibeji twin mourning figures. The Yoruba believe that twins share one soul, and that if one or both should die in childbirth or childhood, a protective statue must be carved. The statues, called Ibeji or ‘twin’, are honoured and handled by the parents throughout their lives as a memorial the lost child and a protective amulet for the surviving twin. This exhibition focuses on the carvers and their techniques and on the way the twin figures were treated and transformed by the families who commissioned them. It is curated by internationally renowned Yoruba art authority Henry Drewal and shows more than 150 Ibeji, an impressively large corpus of carvings of the same genre, enabling issues of apprenticeship, degrees of carving skill, style and local innovation to be addressed.
The second African exhibition, ”Powerful Bodies”, is a display of 85 mainly 19th century objects of prestige adornment created by the Zulu speaking people of South Africa and I believe that this is, too, is the first time these rare and beautiful pieces have been displayed.
They include elegantly carved snuff horn containers worn as hair or body ornaments, intricately beaded belts and body jewellery and carved sticks with decorative finials.
None of these objects is solely utilitarian and, unlike art produced in many other regions of Africa such as West Africa, few of these objects is restricted to a specific rank or status of person, though they do carry messages of power and status.
These carved staffs, ear plugs, snuff containers and beaded body decorations were created purely for prestige and often worn or carried by their makers, and this is one reason why they were so original in their design and remarkable in their execution.
The other is that this exhibition corresponds to a specific post-contact period in the 18th and 19th centuries when Zulu craftsmen and women were exposed to an exciting new range of materials, including the latest European bead colours and sizes, brass buttons and wire, and responded with a flowering of creativity
The guest curator of this exhibition is Professor Anitra Nettleton, Director of Centre for the Creative Arts of Africa at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.
Moving from the old world to the new, the Fowler presents a fascinating glimpse of another famous collection in ,“Chupícuaro: The Natalie Wood Gift of Ancient Mexican Ceramics”, showcasing almost 70 of the 620 works presented to the museum by the well known actor in 1968.
Like the Lapita pottery of the Pacific, which crossed a wide swathe of the Pacific , the Chupícuaro pottery of pre-contact central Mexico influenced much pottery manufacture in Mexico and even extended to the South Western USA. Boldly patterned polychrome Chupícuaro works, including figurines, jars, and mammiform tripod vessels are a distinctive and iconic art form, though there are parallels with the work produced by neighboring cultures, and these are explored in this exhibition
There are three more exhibition staged in honour of this birthday celebration. The first, “New World Wunderkamer”, is an installation project by contemporary Chicana artists Amalia Mesa-Bainswhich integrates objects from the Fowler collections with contemporary cultural icons and the artist’s own works.
The second, on “Peruvian 4 selvedged cloths” showcases the techniques used by the ancient weavers of Peru to create complex pictorial designs without cutting a thread, no matter how intricate the pattern or the garment or textile being woven might be.
This exhibition highlights selections from the Fowler Museum’s noteworthy collection of PreColumbian textiles and includes ancient ritual textiles of the early Chavin and Paracas cultures (500–100 B.C.E.) and the extraordinary garments of the Inca empire (1485–1532 AD).
The third, “From X to Why: A Museum Takes Shape”, explores the evolution of the Fowler through its earliest collections and examines thirty-five objects sculpture, including American Indian pottery and basketry, Latin American ceremonial dress, Peruvian vessels, Indonesian puppets, and European Carnival masks.
Fowler at Fifty is a rare opportunity to see many superb artworks in the Fowler Collection which have never before been on public display. Not to be missed if you live in the LA area or within driving distance, and well worth a visit or stopover if you are traveling to or within the USA. They are on view until the end of January or early February – see the Fowler website for details and dates.
All photographs this article (except the Yoruba twin figures by Denis Nervig) are by Don Cole and are used courtesy of Fowler Museum at UCLA.
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