Sufism's mystic, revealed

Times Staff Writer

Never underestimate the power of a photograph.

That includes photographs made for no aesthetic purpose, conventional or otherwise. Sometimes an ordinary snapshot that, under different conditions, wouldn't generate a second glance can give birth to an entire system of visual culture that both describes and embodies a way of life.

Such a photograph is at the center of "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," a large and often fascinating exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History. Organized by Allen F. and Mary Nooter Roberts, UCLA professor and Fowler deputy director, respectively, the show is said to be the first ever in the United States to examine the visual culture of Islamic Senegal.

In 1913, a photographer whose identity is lost to us today took an unrefined picture of a Muslim holy man. The negative, like the name of the anonymous shutterbug, has disappeared. But the image has since become the basis for untold thousands of paintings on everything from hand-held panes of glass to vast city walls. First published in 1917 in a French book on Senegalese Islam, it has also inspired countless carvings, calligraphic displays, photocopies, plaster reliefs, shirts, pamphlet covers, metal plaques, postcards, lapel buttons, decals, tape cassette covers -- virtually anything in the modern world that can carry a picture.

The holy man is Sheikh Amadou Bamba (1853-1927), and the book's photographic reproduction is his only known portrait made from life. It was taken when Bamba, then 60, was under house arrest by the French colonial government, following 11 years of exile in Gabon and Mauritania. Given the picture's coarseness, it's doubtful that the photographer was a professional. The full-length figure is shown standing on sandy soil in front of a wood-slatted mosque, his body turned slightly to his right. He faces the lens directly.

The image is downright spectral, thanks to the light of the African sun coming from the upper right, over the photographer's shoulder. Stark contrasts of shade and brightness delineate the black-and-white picture.

Bamba squints, but his eyes are obscured. His white robes flatten out against the dark background. A long white scarf wraps around his head and, thrown over his left shoulder, it hides his mouth. No hands emerge from the robe's long sleeves, and only his left ankle and a bit of a sandal are glimpsed at the bottom; there, the saint's shadow forms a dark puddle.

The photograph creates a virtual apparition -- and what better way to represent the founder of a mystical sect than that? It plants one foot in the material world, the other in a metaphysical realm.

Bamba is the patron saint of the Mouride Way, a complex form of Sufism ably explained in the exhibition's thorough catalog. Some Senegalese Muslims called for holy war against the French occupation, but Bamba was a pacifist whose only jihad was fought against the corruption of his own individual soul. He taught that work is prayer. In the exhibition, a work of art can thus assume a binary dimension -- as a relic of a devotional act, and as its very embodiment.

Among the most compelling objects are poster-like paintings on paper in flat, vivid colors of blue, green, red and gold, which Elimane Fall makes to illustrate inspirational lectures. Nearly 7 feet tall, "Ocean of Generosity" (circa 2000) shows an elegant, stylized rendering of Bamba composed from cascading calligraphy that recites his writings. The saint pours calligraphic water onto humanity from a gourd -- talk about the word made flesh -- erasing distinctions between writing and imagery.

Beneath Bamba's feet -- part pedestal, part foundation -- lies an enormous writing pen. Its presence suggests the Mouride adage, "I am a pen in the hand of God." It resonates against examples of clothing in another gallery -- shirts and shawls decorated with mystical inscriptions, writing that can cloak the bodies of followers.

In this magnificent drawing, as in countless other renderings of Bamba in the show, the artist fills in the enigmatic features of the curious photograph. The ghostly phantom takes on a physical body. The shadowed visage assumes a specific face. The hidden mouth is given voice. It's as if, through his artistic labor, the artist merges with the saintly embodiment of the Mouride Way.

The exhibition is divided into six sections. First is a quick introduction to Islam, which was established in Senegal by the 10th century and is the West African nation's dominant faith. The on-going shift from a rural to an urban population, centered in the Atlantic port city of Dakar, is responsible for such recent developments as an efflorescence of mural painting, as well as burgeoning commercial applications of Mouride Way imagery.

A regional tradition of painting on glass was adapted to Sufism, with biblical, Koranic and other themes. The rendering is crisp yet fragile. A rare early-20th century example from the Fowler's collection, which shows a holy man miraculously floating on water as he prays, is painted in flat shapes and decorative colors thought to derive from mass-produced chromolithographs. Today, new glass paintings are sought-after souvenirs, the way chromolithographs once were.

Next comes an explication of Bamba's life, preceded by the singular photograph, and a devotional room lined with posters, paintings, banners and other artifacts. Although some Muslims consider the depiction of people to be improper, the Koran contains no prohibition against it. Sufists who follow the Mouride Way incorporate figural imagery with calligraphy, numerology and abstract patterning.

Sections on work as prayer and the mystical potency of writing are followed by examples of clothing worn by followers of one of Bamba's chief disciples, Sheikh Ibra Fall. Patched from used fabric remnants in blocks of color, these bold garments embody a sense of joy, humility and spiritual interconnection in both their materials and method of assembly.

The show's sixth and final section is problematic. It gathers art by five contemporary Senegalese artists, who work according to Mouride Way principles. Most are painters, but they're engaged in an academic conversation with antiquated School of Paris Modernism.

The notable exception is Viye Diba. His paintings of ethereal fields of luminous pigment are brought into equilibrium with strips of torn cloth and rough-hewn blocks of wood, which assert their physical weight and material presence. The work has a phenomenological kick that the other artists can't muster. Diba absorbs Mouride principles of labor into a contemporary idiom, and the result is objects of conviction and power.

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The exhibition

What: 'A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal'

Where: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History

When: Noon-5 p.m., Wednesdays and Fridays-Sundays; noon-8 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Ends: July 27

Price: Free

Contact: (310) 825-4361

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