The Fowler celebrates 50 years of bringing world arts and cultures to Los Angeles
To mount the "Walk among Worlds" installation, more than 20 people worked for two weeks using wire and hangers to attach the globes. Maximo Gonzalez got the idea for installation, which appeared originally in Madrid, Spain, while waiting at the airport in Lima, Peru, when he saw a globe there.
If you want to walk among worlds, you’d better hurry.
The centerpiece for the Fowler Museum’s lavish 50th anniversary extravaganza, "Fowler at Fifty
," will be floating away in two weeks. Until then, the thousands of beach-ball globes in the towering "Walk among Worlds" installation that seem to grow organically skyward along the walls of the museum’s central courtyard serve as a fun metaphor for what visitors to the Fowler have been doing for the last five decades — walking in wonderment among artworks from Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the indigenous Americas.
The true heart of "Fowler at Fifty," eight separate exhibitions that demonstrate the depth, breadth and richness of the museum’s permanent collections now numbering more than 120,000 items, will be on view until Jan. 26, 2014. In fact, some of the exhibitions will remain open until March.
"These are the greatest hits of the Fowler," said Marla C. Berns, the Shirley and Ralph Shapiro director of the museum, as she described the exhibitions of objects that had never been seen in public before Oct. 13 when "Fowler at Fifty" opened its doors. Each exhibition has its own themes, curatorial team and, in some cases, contributing artist. Planning this milestone celebration consumed more than two years. "We never made it easy for ourselves," Berns said in retrospect "We took at least 1,000 objects out of storage. Each exhibition has a different storyline … and a different look. So it’s really a celebration of how wonderful I think this museum is."
Standing amidst his inflatable installation, "Walk among Worlds," Máximo González of Mexico City marveled at how fitting it is to include his work, with each globe representing one million people, for a worldwide population of 7 billion inhabitants. "It’s a perfect combination — these globes, representing the contemporary world and the political divisions among countries, surrounded by traditional artwork from every part of the planet."
Out of this eclectic mix of cultures, traditions and geographic locations, Berns, the curators and her hard-working staff took a unifying approach that links these diverse exhibitions.
New World Wunderkammer: A project by Amalia Mesa-Bains, 2013. Installation photograph by Joshua White/JWPictures.com
"We decided that each of these exhibitions would demonstrate the important ways the Fowler has interpreted the great creativity of humankind, the meanings the arts hold for the people who create them and their ongoing relevance today for us in California," Berns told a gathering of artists, curators and media representatives at a Friday preview of "Fowler at Fifty."
Instead of focusing its energy on a visiting exhibition to mark the museum’s 50th year, the staff decided to look inward to its own collections. Sometimes, Berns said, museums "don’t look hard enough at their own richness, at their own treasures." To date, the Fowler’s largest gift came from the Wellcome Trust in London in 1964. That gift brought approximately 30,000 objects collected by pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome into the Fowler’s storerooms. These stunning objects from Africa, Melanesia, Polynesia, Indonesia, the Northwest coast of North America and South America provided the museum’s strong "bones" for its holdings.
"It’s vast, it’s deep, it’s broad, it’s thrilling," Berns said of its collection. "And we don’t have enough opportunities to show it. We need a building at least twice the size of this one in order to do it justice."
Among the eight exhibitions that represent the Fowler’s worldwide treasures are:
"From the Sepik River to Los Angeles: Art in Migration" features masks, sculptures, shields and ritual objects from the island of New Guinea in the South Pacific, objects that were part of a massive migration that brought so-called "primitive art" across the ocean to Southern California.
"Double Fortune, Double Trouble: Art for Twins among the Yorùbá" brings to life a fascinating tradition by which the people of southwestern Nigeria, Togo and Benin honor the memory of their dead twin children. With one of the highest rates of twin births in the world, the Yorùbá also suffer the loss of many twins in infancy or childhood. "They don’t refer to them as deceased, but as passing on. Then it’s time for the surviving twin and the mother to care for that spirit," said Betsy Quick, the Fowler’s director of education and curatorial affairs. "So the family commissions a carved figure, and the artist will create a work that presents that twin in the fullness of life." Rubbed smooth with affection and lovingly carried in their mothers’ wrappers, these small figures, called ibeji, are sometimes decorated with necklaces, bracelets and even clothes.
Cloak. Ngati Whakaue Maori peoples, Rotorua District, Aotearoa; pre-1883 Harakeke, wool, feathers; double-pair weft twining, taniko weft twining; L: 87 cm, W: 150 cm, D: 2 cm. Fowler Museum at UCLA X65.8009, Gift of the Wellcome Trust.
"Maori Cloaks, Maori Voices" displays stunning capes painstakingly woven from New Zealand flax, pieces of wool and feathers from prized birds. Visitors can hear from Maori artists and scholars, on video, about the cloaks’ meaning and relevance. One piece is so rare that one of the curators, a representative from the National Museum of New Zealand, remarked that she had never seen anything like it before, said Michelle Erai, a UCLA professor of gender studies, member of a tribe on North Island and the only Maori faculty member on campus. The cloaks represent her tribal ancestors, Erai said. "So when I come in here, I say a prayer, ‘Hey, guys. I’m here.’"
"From X to Why: A Museum Takes Shape" tells the story of the Fowler’s history through its earliest acquisitions, works that foreshadowed its role as one of the premier museums in the world for preserving and exhibiting works of art from cultures around the world. It all began with a magnificent Balinese ceremonial textile.
Other exhibitions include "The Peruvian Four-Selvaged Cloth: Ancient Threads/New Directions"; "New World Wunderkammer: A Project by Amalia Mesa-Bains"; "Chupícuaro: The Natalie Wood Gift of Ancient Mexican Ceramics"; and "Fowler in Focus: Fiftieth Anniversary Gifts."
"Of course, a museum’s greatness can be defined by the excellence of its collections," Berns said. "But from my point of view, it’s what you do with the collections that is an even more significant and meaningful indicator of greatness."