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Allen Roberts Introduces Los Angeles Teachers to the Saint in the City

Allen Roberts Introduces Los Angeles Teachers to the Saint in the City

Fowler Museum curator and director of the African Studies Center leads tour of exhibit on Senegalese Sufi holy man Amadou Bamba.

By Leslie Evans

Most Angelenos don't know it, but July 23 is officially Amadou Bamba Day in Los Angeles, by declaration of the Los Angeles City Council. Though many in this country have never heard of him, the charismatic Islamic holy man is the center of a movement that has swept up almost half the population of Senegal and includes that country's president, Abdoulaye Wade. Artwork commemorating the life of Amadou Bamba (1853-1927) was the centerpiece of a five-month exhibit at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History entitled "A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal," which closed July 27. On the next to the last day, Fowler curator Allen Roberts, who with his wife Mary Nooter Roberts had assembled the exhibit over ten years' time and many trips to Senegal, led a group of Los Angeles high school teachers on a three-hour journey through the many rooms and 200 pieces of art by 9 Senegalese artists. Allen Roberts is also director of the James S. Coleman Center for African Studies. The tour of the exhibit was part of the "Islam in the Contemporary World" segment of the UCLA International Institute's International and Area Studies Summer Institute for Educators.

Amadou Bamba, whose image can be found everywhere in Senegal from the walls of kiosks to hubcaps, was a prolific poet, a pacifist opponent of French colonialism in his country, and the founder of the mystical Sufi Islamic sect known as the Mouride Way. He extolled hard work and mystical experience. His followers number 4-5 million in Senegal and many thousands in other countries around the world. "The press and the position the White House has taken presents one view of Muslims," Allen Roberts told the schoolteachers. "It is not true that most Muslims are like that or even that many Muslims are like that. Most Muslims do not approve of those kinds of acts."

Amadou Bamba is known from a single surviving photograph taken when he was under house arrest by the French in 1913. The overexposed photo shows few discernible features: a long white robe, a white head scarf that covers his mouth, dark spots where his eyes are. But this image has become the core of a popular religious movement within Islam. It is always depicted the same way and is readily identifiable. In the short time since his death, legends of miracles have grown up around this urban saint, miracles that are depicted over and over in popular art. The most striking is the legend that while being transported into exile on a French ship, the colonial authorities refused to allow Amadou Bamba to pray. Finally he threw his prayer rug into the sea and jumped overboard, where he and the prayer rug were miraculously supported while he made his devotions before returning to the ship. This image of Bamba on his rug in the ocean is painted on walls, is the subject of works by many artists, and appears on souvenirs of many kinds. "People believe that just to see the image of the saint conveys a baraka or blessing," Allen Roberts said.

The first room of the exhibit contained works reproduced by the artist Pape Samb, known as Papisto Boy, from his 600 foot mural on a factory wall in Dakar. Papisto Boy has been working on his mural on these dingy factory walls for 30 years--and unlike Los Angeles, no one has grafittied his painting. These vibrant street paintings are filled with the symbolism the Maurides have evolved, combined with older Islamic legends and images of more contemporary figures such as Che Guevara and Kwame Nkrumah. A dove representing the Archangel Gabriel brings messages from Allah to the saint. A lion represents strength but also the national soccer team.

The Mourides "are the largest of four Sufi movements in Senegal," Allen Roberts told the teachers. "The Mouride Way teaches self-reliance. It is remarkable to see dozens of youths out cleaning the streets as volunteers. Mouridism teaches that each person has a personal path and that they must strive hard and work hard to achieve it."

Elsewhere in the exhibit were brilliantly colored paintings on glass by Mor Gueye depicting a series of miracles by the saint. There was a reconstruction of a one-room Mauride sanctum created by holy man and healer Serigne Modou Faye in which every surface is covered with paintings and images, mostly of Amadou Bamba and his family and disciples. Another museum room contained scores of popular paintings of Amadou Bamba by many artists. Yet another artist, calligrapher Elimane Fall, filled a room entitled "Healing Words" with ornate Arabic script of Amadou Bamba's poems and panels of the Arabic alphabet in precision-cut plasticized paper.

The overall impression is of a religion new-born that has struck deep roots in people's lives. Some 20,000 Los Angeles school children visited the "Saint in the City" exhibit during the five months it was on display. It will now go to the University of Florida. The Islam in the Contemporary World program was sponsored by the UCLA International Institute and its affiliated centers for African Studies, Southeast Asian Studies, European and Eurasian Studies, and Near Eastern Studies.

A lengthy illustrated article on the Saint in the City exhibit written by Allen F. Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts appears in the Winter 2002 issue of the art journal African Arts, published by the James S. Coleman African Studies Center.

African Studies Center