How works by modern artists express the traditions, objects, and materials of the Nile Valley’s ancient cultures.
As I walk toward an art gallery inside Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, a jazz soundtrack mixes with the shouts of children darting around the shopping center’s play area, and mannequins pose in clothing stores’ bright windows.
Greeting me at the gallery’s entrance is a very different kind of mannequin: a life-size shamanic statue draped in layers of embroidered colorful fabric and crowned by a face-obscuring mass of hair. The statue—titled Kentifrican Ashentee Healer by Kenyatta A.C. Hinkle—is part of Adornment | Artifact, a vibrant series of exhibitions showcasing contemporary artworks that integrate elements of ancient African culture (totems, altars, rituals, scarabs, pyramids, and hieroglyphs). Organized by Transformative Arts, the series features the work of more than 60 Los Angeles artists at five locations across the city, offering a chorus of connections and responses to the ancient Nile Valley’s culture and art.
Mounting one of the exhibitions in a well-trafficked shopping center elicits unexpected connections between ancient and modern life. Indeed, the words painted outside the gallery’s doorway call out to passersby, “The ancient heart beats in us.”
A historical exhibition at the Getty Villa Museum complements Adornment | Artifact. Nubia: Jewels of Ancient Sudan from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston displays the statues of goddesses and powerful queens as well as the gold, bronze, and stone jewelry created during the 3,000-year reign of the Kingdom of Kush.
Nubia may seem like just one of several fascinating ancient civilizations, but its symbolism remains uniquely alive and important to many. To express the strong resonance between Nubia and contemporary artists, the Museum invited jill moniz, cofounder of Transformative Arts, to curate Adornment | Artifact.
When moniz began seeking artworks tied to Nubian themes, she looked for objects that expressed the same kind of materiality as Nubian artifacts, like gold and other precious materials, and used a similar visual iconography. “I was also looking at the ways that artists used adornment,” she says. “That has long been part of our community, particularly among women, but all people adorn themselves in ways that telegraph who they are and what they believe. Finally, I was looking for objects that act as a transformative device, like Nubian artifacts do, where the wearer or user deploys the object to tap into something greater than themselves—a spiritual power.”
moniz says that Alison Saar’s Cool Mama was on her mind from the very beginning. The work is a life-size, copper-relief sculpture of a nude woman with small holes torn into her body. Within the holes hang single cowrie shells that moniz interprets as sores from the experience of being human. “Saar takes those sores and fills them with cowrie shells as a healing element, which embody both the spirit and the environment itself. That’s the complexity I was looking for.”
Some artists made new works inspired by Nubian artifacts. When moniz showed Enrique Castrejon the exhibition catalogue for Nubia, he pored over it, taking lots of photos. He was particularly drawn to a golden chest ornament depicting a Nubian version of Isis. He told moniz that the goddess had gotten into his head and demanded tribute. Castrejon ended up making a shimmering, 13-foot-long golden kite depicting Isis with her wings spread. The kite is displayed high up on the gallery wall in Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, but one can easily imagine it flying outside against the blue sky, its golden streamers glittering in the sun.
The sculpture Gene Permutations by Alicia Piller includes a circular sculpture hung on the wall made from a hodgepodge of materials—from batteries and seedpods to printouts of a DNA test. Layered behind it are images of a model ship owned by the artist’s mother, a reference to the ocean passages their ancestors unwillingly made from Africa to the Americas.
Moniz selected this work “to visualize the conversation around lineage and legacy” and to pose the question, “Who has the ability to claim Nubia, and why?”
The Nubian Diaspora in L.A.
Adornment | Artifact expands the notion of Nubian ancestral legacy even further; moniz describes the participating artists as all belonging to the “Nubian diaspora.” In this generous definition, the diaspora includes artists of various ethnic identities whose work honors ancestral traditions and symbols that have endured centuries of dismantling and extraction under colonial rule. (Nubian artifacts, as one example of many, were permanently removed by American archaeologists in the early 20th century with permission not from Sudan or Egypt but from British authorities during their half-century occupation.) “I wanted to emphasize how complex and how multicultural and deeply connected L.A. contemporary artists are to diasporic origins,” moniz says.
This illumination and cross-pollination of ancient traditions are themes moniz was excited to see artists embrace. In the painting Perceive by South African-born Raksha Parekh, two large eyes are framed by a background of deep red. The spiral form below them invokes the South Asian design for Buddha’s all-seeing eyes, while the gold paint on the eyelids and black marks on the bottom lids suggest the Nubian Eye of Horus, a symbol of protection. Two distinct cultural traditions are blended to create a powerful solidarity.
The works in Adornment | Artifact prove that objects excavated a century ago, and the culture that created them thousands of years ago, can still speak to today’s artists. moniz asserts that these exhibitions are just the beginning of a conversation, not the completion of a survey. The rich culture of this ancient African kingdom still has much to teach us.