“Far and away the most compelling recent L.A. exhibit on the relationship between language and art.”
Doug Harvey, LA Weekly, April 2009
Inscribing Meaning brings together outstanding works of art from a range of periods, regions, genres, and peoples in order to consider the interplay between African art and the communicative power of graphic systems, language, and the written word. Explore the multiple messages and aesthetic intent of more than one hundred exceptional artworks—including ancient Egyptian funerary arts; masks, sculpture, textiles, and adornment from across the continent; illuminated liturgical texts; and the work of contemporary artists Rachid Koraïchi, Ghada Amer, Berni Searle, Ike Ude, Victor Ekpuk, Sue Williamson, Kim Berman, Yinka Shonibare, Wosene Kosrof, and many others.
Writing systems have flourished in Africa for thousands of years and have contributed significantly to the global history of writing, yet they have received little attention outside the continent. Now for the first time, this new exhibition presents artworks from a range of periods, regions, genres and peoples that testify to the richness and diversity of African scripts and graphic forms of communication. Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art—on display at the Fowler Museum from Oct. 14, 2007–Feb. 17, 2008—features more than one hundred important and visually compelling works of art and explores the ways they creatively incorporate script and graphic symbols to communicate multiple messages and intentions.
Explains Polly Nooter Roberts, co-curator of the exhibition and deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler Museum, “the intellectual complexity, artistic beauty, and historical uses of African scripts demand a wider, more inclusive definition of writing. Writing has, for the most part, been limited to phonetic alphabets, despite the great diversity and cultural richness of inscription systems worldwide.”
An introductory section of Inscribing Meaning focuses on the history of particular African scripts, including ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, Vai and Mende from Liberia and Sierra Leone, Tifinagh, an ancient script of the Tuareg people, nsibidi from Nigeria, the liturgical Ge’ez script from Ethiopia, and others. Africa’s use of imported writing systems, such as Arabic and Roman scripts, are also addressed here, and selected works show how contemporary African artists engage with script or invent their own. The exhibition next contemplates the themes of body inscription, sacred writing, power and politics, artists’ books, and words in art.
Inscribing the Body
From early Egyptian works to the most contemporary art forms, African artists have used the body as a primary “canvas” for inscriptions—such as scarification or tattooing—or as a site for displaying graphically rich materials found on clothing or jewelry. The first section of ‘Inscribing Meaning’ explores such body decoration with amuletic jewelry, textiles used as garments, and representations of the inscribed body. An intricate wooden headrest carved by the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo depicts female figures and reflects many Luba conventions of beauty, including the graphic language of scarification.
Contemporary works by Berni Searle, Ghada Amer, and Iké Udé explore the subject in a variety of ways: South African artist Searle works with henna dyes to consider the complex notion of the word “stain,” Amer addresses text and the body through embroidered body suits, and Udé’s elegant photographs recalls the practice of uli body and wall motifs of his Igbo heritage while simultaneously referencing high fashion.
In religious traditions the world over, writing and graphic inscription are endowed with sacred attributes, for they are considered both the embodiment of the divine and a powerful means for conveying religious teachings. In Africa, specialized forms of writing and graphic inscription are usually the domain of highly trained (and often religious) practitioners, from scribes and poets to priests, monks and healers.
This section of the exhibition explores a wide range of religious objects that incorporate script, including an Egyptian inner coffin lid, a monumental talismanic healing cloth inscribed with Muslim prayers and magic squares, an Ethiopian Orthodox prayer scroll, and several contemporary works, including a painted board from Nigerian artist Victor Ekpuk’s “Manuscript” series that combines the form of a Qur’anic tablet with nsibidi signs from his Nigerian heritage.
In different African social, political and cultural contexts, works of art often incorporate scripts as one way to express how power is accrued through the acquisition of specialized knowledge and skills, such as healing with herbal medicines, communicating with the spirit world, and writing. In creating works of art that serve those who guard and exercise power, such as warriors, leaders and members of religious or political associations, artists rely on the symbolic significance of specific materials, images, and, at times, inscriptions to imbue objects with greater efficacy and visual potency.
In this section of Inscribing Meaning, an Asafo flag from Ghana is displayed to show how it challenges rivals through imagery relating to proverbs and appliqué inscriptions, while symbolic weapons inscribed with pseudo-Arabic demonstrate how they bolster the aura and power of their owners. Masks and textiles worn in Nigeria by members of a men’s association are embellished with nsibidi signs and are presented along with numerous examples of how words and images unite in African art to convey information and communicate power.
Artists often use inscription to detail the discrepancies and ironies of colonial narratives of conquest and to explore how writing has dictated the telling of Africa’s histories. South African artist Kim Berman, for example, incorporates texts from newspaper and television accounts of current events in her suite of eighteen prints titled Playing Cards of the Truth Commission, an Incomplete Deck (1999), recognizing the media’s power to mold public opinion during the Commission’s deliberations.
Other works in this section, such as those by Durant Sihlali, evoke the practice of graffiti as a way to bring ideas into the public sphere. Among the most compelling examples of the use of word and image for political ends are several Congolese popular paintings, which incorporate French, Lingala, Swahili, and other languages into captions to support the artworks’ visual narratives.
Words Unbound and Word Play
While contemporary art is interspersed throughout this exhibition, the two final sections are devoted exclusively to the works of contemporary artists. “Words Unbound” features ten contemporary artists’ books, including examples by South African artist Sue Williamson and Senegal’s Moussa Tine. The final section of “Inscribing Meaning” highlights the fascination with scripts and words manifested in the work of several internationally recognized contemporary African artists, including Rachid Koraïchi (Algeria), Victor Ekpuk (Nigeria), and Wosene Worke Kosrof (Ethiopia).
This exhibition was a collaboration between the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. The Los Angeles presentation was made possible in part by the Shirley & Ralph Shapiro Director’s Discretionary Fund and Manus, the support group of the Fowler Museum. Support for accompanying educational programs was provided by The James Irvine Foundation, Yvonne Lenart Public Programs Fund, and Aaroe Associates Charitable Foundation.