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Gueye cleared things up with immigration officials in time for the Fowler opening, and with the help of two translators (from English to French to Wolof) I asked him a question that kept coming to me as I walked through the show. Although the Mouride artists had obviously cooperated fully with their presentation as a secular academic/aesthetic curiosity, their reasons for making fine art must be radically different than the prevailing Western model: Why make art?
"What I want to do in life is to show people who Amadou Bamba is," said Gueye. "That's what my purpose is. I want to make portraits of the saint because I want to show people who the saint was, and have the opportunity to teach about the saint. But also when I make portraits of the saint, it gives me a blessing and a protection, for myself and my family. So I want to do this for the rest of my life, because this is my deep purpose. The love of my life is to show people who the saint was, and wherever the saint's image is, that's where I want to be."
What then, I wondered, is the reason for painting secular images of, say, the Lakers?
"If it were up to me, I would only paint images of the saint," said Gueye, "but because I have the ability to paint and people want to have other subjects, I paint them also, to make a living. But if I had the opportunity, I would only paint images of the saint."
"A Saint in the City" challenges a number of popular Western misconceptions concerning Islam. Clearly the prohibition of representational art is nowhere near as absolute as many believe, and Amadou Bamba's example of pacifist resolution (he once said that the only jihad he would lead was against the venality of his own soul) is in keeping with Islam's underreported history of religious and political tolerance. But perhaps the show's greatest challenge is to contemporary Western ways of thinking about art making. To hear a professional visual artist convey such assurance and calm joy about his practice, and to witness its utter saturation with meaning through its conception, execution and public reception, is certainly heartening to anyone concerned with art's potential to do good in the world. But compared to the Mouride artists, most of the timid, constrained posers working The Art World seem like small fish in a small pond, unaware of the element in which they swim but desperately needing benediction. They should stick their heads out and look around.
A SAINT IN THE CITY: SUFI ARTS OF URBAN SENEGAL Fowler Museum of Cultural History, UCLA North Campus, Westwood | Through July 27