Art from Africa's junkyards

Lilting dance music fills the rooms in the first US display of Senegalese Sufi art. But it is not just another piece of radio noise.

The song, "Do You Hear Me, Father Bamba?" is by the well-known Sufi singer, Youssou N'Dour, singing to his faithful and exhorting them to show their faith in everyday life.

Indeed, showing the faith might be a good way to describe the intention of "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," at the Fowler Museum of Cultural History at the University of California, Los Angeles, through July 27.

Through various art forms, including murals, glass paintings, and fragile historical documents, the show depicts a community-building vision of Islam that stands in stark contrast to Islamist radicals. "This is another, and very important face of Islam," says co-curator Allen Roberts, UCLA professor of World Arts and Culture.

The exhibition, which Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight dubbed as one of L.A.'s top nine art events for 2003, "actually began in the junkyards of Senegal," says Mary Nooter Roberts, chief curator of the Fowler Museum.

She and her husband, co- curator Allen Roberts, were in the country nearly 10 years ago and noticed that discarded motor parts were being hammered into sieves. The exhibition explores the impact of one of the most important Sufi movements in the sub-Saharan African nation, known as Mouridism.

"There is this thing called the mystique du travail, she says, referring to the French phrase "the mystique of work," that surrounds the Mouridians. "They take this dedication to work as a means to salvation to something far beyond even the Protestant work ethic."

The Mouridism movement was founded by the Sufi poet and mystic, Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), the spiritual leader of some 4 million Senegalese Muslims, including the country's current president. The most important tenets of the religion are pacifism and hard work, says Ms. Roberts.

Mouridians, she says, are known for transforming derelict areas of a community into vibrant, livable centers for commerce and political life, through their devotion to labor. Images of the detritus of industrial life being turned into useful objects abound. One photo shows vast piles of oil barrels that will be flattened into trunks.

Before the show begins, visitors encounter a full-length photo of the saint, the only known image of "Bamba," as he is called. It is a stark black-and-white photo. But it has become an image that has been studied and reproduced in art forms as diverse as mile-long street murals and intricate glass paintings.

"All the art forms in some way refer back to this photo. All of these bits are also signs of God," says Roberts, who adds that the Sufis see signs of God everywhere.

The actual show starts with the murals of graffiti artist Papisto, an important figure in the 1980s youth movement known as Set-Sal. During demonstrations protesting the country's lack of jobs, Senegalese youth fanned out into the community. But instead of destroying, these youths painted the walls with pop-culture imagery and depictions of Sufi saints.

Visitors continue into the show through scalloped archways reminiscent of the saint's burial tomb in the holy city of Touba. From there, the experience is meant to evoke a walk through Senegalese daily life, complete with restaurant doors and street-peddler carts.

By showing the quotidian artifacts of the community, the exhibit hopes to reveal just how deeply embedded the tenets of the religious movement are in everyday Senegalese life.

In one section, a street-front prayer room has been replicated, down to the boombox and spinning disco ball made up of colored glass shards inscribed with 99 names for God. Interestingly, glass paintings depict the shared religious history of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism: Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, the sacrifice of Abraham.

Roberts adds that they invited local Mouridians to the Fowler for opening day. This was a great sacrifice for the Mouridians, she says. They are all small businessmen, working hard to enrich the downtown Los Angeles community in which they live. "But they know the value in what the show teaches," she adds, and so they came.

"This is a teaching tool as much as an art exhibit," says Roberts, who points out with a laugh that Sufis, who believe nothing happens by chance, would add that since the show is being held on a university campus, with such a strong mandate to teach, it was meant to be.

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