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Fowler Museum Gains Collection of Elite Objects from the Congo


By Jesy Odio '15

Published Nov 7, 2013 8:00 AM

Jay T. Last and Deborah R. Last '60 donated an array of masks, spoons, and baskets.


Anthropomorphic figure--Bust
Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last

A fascination with African masks and tools has evolved into a generous donation to the Fowler Museum as the museum celebrates its 50th anniversary. Jay T. Last and his wife, Deborah R. Last '60, have given 318 objects made by the Lega people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Most of the pieces have been dated to as early as the 19th century.

The stunning collection of artifacts includes an array of masks, spoons and baskets. The majority of the objects can be accredited to the Bwami society, an elite organization within the culture of the Lega people. The society finds these items so valuable, socially and politically, that most of the objects can only be manufactured and owned by the highest-ranking portion of the ethnic group. The objects are exclusively passed down from one generation to the next within the Bwami society.

This is not the Fowler’s first engagement with a collection of Lega objects. In 2001, the museum mounted an exhibition titled Art of the Lega: Meaning and Metaphor in Central Africa. The curator, Elisabeth Cameron, also published, through the Fowler, a book by the same title. The exhibition revealed how the arts played a significant role in the Lega culture as symbols of the people’s morals and values. A portion of that exhibition was also a gift from Jay T. Last.


Wood figure with raised arms
Fowler Museum at UCLA. Gift of Jay T. Last

Last is recognized as one of the founders of the technological realm now called Silicon Valley. But, in the last 20 years, he has dedicated more of his time to his art interests. He has founded the nonprofit organization, the Archeological Conservancy, released several art publications and worked on his ever-expanding collection of lithographs and African artifacts. His wife, Deborah, earned her bachelor’s degree in art history at UCLA in 1960.

The gift is one of many contributions the Lasts have made to the Fowler. They provided financial support toward the construction of the museum, endowed the position of museum curator of African arts and established a $1 million matching commitment in support of the museum’s administrative system. They now have donated a total of 660 items to the Fowler.

The masks and tools, however, won’t be at home in Westwood until next year; they currently are part of the exhibition Secrets d’ivoire; l’art lega d’Afrique central at the musée du quai Branly in Paris. Meanwhile, the Fowler Museum’s 50th anniversary celebration, Fowler at 50, continues, with eight wonderful exhibitions through spring 2014. The Fowler, which focuses on the arts and culture of Africa, Asia, and the Americas, is free to the public.