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A LOVABLE EXHIBITION THAT GOES STRAIGHT TO THE GOURD

In fifth grade the favored challenge to one’s pint-size adversaries was, “You leave me alone or I’ll bonk you on your gourd.”

This invective, rather than resulting in a brawl, usually ended the matter by reducing both parties to helpless laughter. Gourd was such a hilarious word.

During the same epoch the comedian Jimmy Durante had a radio program which he always ended by intoning, “Good night Mrs. Calabash, wherever you are.”

Calabash was such a hilarious word.

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Now all these years later one discovers that gourd and calabash describe the same inedible fruit and are used interchangeably except among certain specialists, who reserve the latter for the North American variety and the former for the African. This intelligence is contained in the catalogue for a new exhibition presented by UCLA’s Museum of Cultural History (on view in the Wight Gallery through May 18). It is titled “The Essential Gourd” and raises at least one profound scholarly question:

How do you do a serious art exhibition about anything as funny as the humble gourd?

Well, UCLA has managed. It has more than managed, because art exhibitions this serious have been known to be stultifying, but this one is lovable, educational and fun to look at. It concerns the uses of gourds among the peoples of northeastern Nigeria, an area generally regarded as a wasteland for art, especially when considered against the great historical tradition of the Ife and the Benin.

Which is not to say the art of the gourd represents any sort of grand courtly tradition. It’s more of a gourdly tradition. (I promise not to do that again.)

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The exhibition includes more than 200 examples put together by African art historian Marla Berns, who expanded research started in 1969 by her colleague Barbara Rubin Hudson (a combined effort representing almost six years of field work). And now here you are--everything you wanted to know about gourds but were afraid to ask. We see a wall diagram demonstrating the geographic distribution of styles from the delicate glyphic tracery of the Pastoral Fulani to the chunky energy of the Mbulu, whose high-speed strokes put one in mind of Franz Kline’s paintings.

Gourds, simply cured and used, develop rich patinas, like the bowls of tobacco pipes, but the artistic urge is at work. They are embellished with sumptuous all-over beadwork, transformed into objects of shamanic power with the addition of human jawbones, fashioned into masks and headdresses for children’s rituals and ingeniously pressed into service as musical instruments. Some bear figurative decoration that looks like ancient Egyptian art funneled through the royal courts of Ife. The masterworks of this genre are three gourd vases fashioned for a British Empire exhibition held in 1924. The native artist’s depiction of Whitey in his motorcar is satire the more devastating for its gentleness.

Techniques of decoration from pyro-etching to painting and dyeing are explained in sober wall charts. And if one develops the impression that these abstract patterns are mere decoration, the notion is quickly disabused with an examination of their symbolic meanings, which range from “beautiful girl” crosshatching that echoes the pattern of elaborate coiffures to marks that stand for everything from war to airplanes. Anytime it all starts seeming a trifle pedantic, you simply mutter “gourd,” and giggle.

Gourds seem to be a kind of general practical and expressive currency in the area. They are used as part of every bride’s dowry, and one of the prettiest pieces on view is a basketful of decorated gourd bowls that look like African Easter eggs. Evidently most gourd art is made by women, and one can’t help thinking of it as a kind of Nigerian folk art that parallels the American quilt, including the feminist subtext that has emerged along with an appreciation of the form.

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At bottom the existence of gourds gives one serious doubts about humankind’s vaunted inventiveness. You think we invented bowls? Nature was there first with half a gourd. You think we invented bottles? The bottle-shaped gourd was surely the prototype.

But Nigerians made art from them, which casts even more serious doubts about the inventiveness of modern Western art. The first thing we see in the gallery is a group of undecorated gourds that look terribly familiar to the art lover.

Holy cow, it’s Biomorphic Surrealism. We thought that was created in Europe in the 1920s by Hans Arp, Joan Miro and that crew. But there it is, right off the vine--the same undefined voluptuous curves, the same phallic protuberances that gave abstract Surrealism such a sexual charge.

And an equally familiar goony, galumphing humor.

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Holy cow, it’s Funk art from the ‘60s.

It all begins to make wonderful sense--the fifth-grader’s embarrassed amusement, the modern artist’s fascination, the Nigerians’ sense of magic and utility.

Remember when Al Capp invented the Schmoo for Li’l Abner? The Schmoo was a gourd-shaped creature who would cheerfully turn itself into anything from a pork chop to a bundle of money and then die, happy to serve mankind. The Schmoo was the metaphor for this fruit as a kind of universally adaptable gift from nature.

You can practically see somebody falling on their knees and praying, “Dear Gourd. . . . “

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Damn, did it again.

I lived for a time in a new apartment development in Marina del Rey. It was huge, but the style was New England shingle and everything was done to make it luxuriously cozy. The grounds were planted with full-grown trees. Babbling brooks ran between four swimming pools. My digs overlooked the Marina channel and on a winter’s evening you could brood out at the fog while toasting next to a roaring fire.

Why should it make any difference that the babbling brooks were shut off at 11 o’clock, or that the roaring fire sprang to life at the click of a switch? Perhaps it shouldn’t, but I finally moved out largely because of an unsettling sense of unreality that pervaded the place, in everything from slipshod building to architectural anachronism.

That feeling is what the architectural photographs of Joshua Freiwald are all about. His pictures make a telling little show in UCLA’s Grunwald Graphics gallery, organized by architecture professor George Rand (also on view to May 18).

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Freiwald, largely unknown in the art world, spent some 20 years as a commercial architectural photographer. If these 30 prints represent what he did for his clients, you wonder how he got away with it. The pictures are quietly devastating--and you also wonder exactly how he brings that off.

A 1978 composition of St. Louis’ old courthouse framed by Eero Saarinen’s famous arch seems harmless at first. But the arch is chopped at the top and it looks like an oversize McDonald’s hamburger sign. A piece of overwrought heroic sculpture in the foreground and the neo-classical courthouse look uneasy and thin, as if they were embarrassed to be in the Midwest instead of in Europe. The architecture carries a symbolism of Authority and the interpretation conveys Artificiality.

This sense of a bogus superego carries through Freiwald’s work, from pictures of the Crystal Cathedral to a shot of a shopping mall with two motorcycle cops walking around looking displaced without their mechanical steeds.

There is something of Diane Arbus’ sarcasm here and something of Lewis Balz’s deadpan minimalism, but Freiwald never appears angry or judgmental so the work is chillingly believable. It is a picture of a society where the reigning class is cold, venal and unworthy of the people it pretends to serve.

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Freiwald sympathizes with an old woman who surrounds herself with kitsch furniture to cover up the warehouse paucity of her senior citizen dwelling. He sees simple dignity mocked in migrant farm workers housed in disposable shells that look like sets for bad science-fiction movies.

In his shots of Danemora prison one doesn’t know which is more horrible, the junky garden plots that look like purgatory, the mess hall with the pathetic landscape mural or the barbershop with rows of chairs that look like electric chairs. Well, sure, but those guys are convicted criminals. Right. But Freiwald is talking about an architecture that regiments everybody and insults them with a frosting of peace and security.

Glad I moved to an old house in a funky neighborhood.


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