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On Exhibit: Writings on the Wall

Experience the wonders of African art in this mesmerizing display by the Fowler Museum.


By Jack Feuer

Published Jan 29, 2008 8:00 AM

Copyright © Photos (On Exhibit) Courtesy of Fowler Museum

Writing systems have flourished in Africa for thousands of years and have contributed significantly to the global history of writing, but not many people have paid attention to this rich legacy — until now. A new exhibition at the Fowler Museum at UCLA, Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art, is a striking display of artwork from a range of periods, regions, genres and peoples from the Continent.

In the exhibition, a collaboration between the Fowler and the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art, you'll see more than 100 fascinating pieces, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, an intricate wooden headrest carved by the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a talismanic healing cloth inscribed with Muslim prayers and magic squares, an Asafo flag from Ghana, masks and textiles worn in Nigeria by members of a men's association. Plus, playing cards, books and body decoration with amuletic jewelry.

The exhibit also includes works by several modern African artists, including South Africa's Berni Searle, who works with henna dyes to consider the complex notion of the word "stain." Ghada Amer addresses text and the body through embroidered body suits.

Kim Berman incorporates texts from newspaper and television accounts of current events in a suite of 18 prints titled "Playing Cards of the Truth Commission, an Incomplete Deck."

And Ike Ude's elegant photographs recall the practice of uli body and wall motifs of his Igbo heritage — while simultaneously referencing high fashion.

"The exhibition explores the remarkable richness and variety of writing and graphic systems in Africa, from the ancient past to the contemporary moment," explains Polly Nooter Roberts, co-curator of the exhibition and deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler Museum.

"It overturns misconceptions — fueled by the legacy of colonialism — about an illiterate continent by showing that forms of writing not only began on the African continent in the fourth millennium B.C.E. in Egypt, but that they have proliferated ever since as phonetic, ideographic and pictographic scripts that fuse with and enhance works of art in stunningly creative ways."

Roberts adds that "My favorite aspects of the exhibition are the thematic sections that show how writing can be used to inscribe identity on the body, to effect healing and embody the sacred, and to augment power and express political relationships."

Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art. Through Feb. 17. Wednesdays through Sundays, noon-5 p.m. Thursdays, noon-8 p.m. Free and open to the public. For information, call (310) 825-4361 or log on to



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