Photo by Don Cole

IT WAS APPARENT FROM THE FIRST MOMENT that “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal” was not going to be your typical museum show. When I arrived at UCLA's Fowler Museum of Cultural History for a walk-through with the curators, I was told that they were busy briefing the security staff on the distinct possibility that some patrons — especially during the opening — were liable to touch, fondle and even kiss the artworks, and that it was important not to interfere. The patrons in question would be Mourides — members of the Senegalese Islamic sect devoted to Amadou Bamba, the Sufi saint to whom the show's title refers. In spite of preaching nonviolence and an almost Protestant work ethic, Bamba was perceived as a threat to early-20th-century French colonial rulers of this West African nation, and spent much of his life imprisoned, in exile, or under house arrest. In the 75 years since his death, his following has grown to 4 million and spread across the globe, including a large population in New York and a smaller enclave in L.A.

As it turned out, I was meeting with only half the curatorial team — UCLA African-studies professor Al Roberts was stuck at the airport trying to convince the INS that aging glass painter Mor Gueye, who had flown all the way from Senegal for the event, was no threat to national security. Polly Roberts, deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler and Al's co-curator and wife, was more than up to the task. “Saint in the City” touches on the entire history of Islamic art, but the main focus of the show is the incredible proliferation of publicly displayed images of Amadou Bamba, particularly in Senegal's teeming port capital of Dakar. The exhibit is a personal accomplishment for the Robertses, who have been developing the idea for nine years, ever since they saw their first Bamba images while on a trip to Senegal.

“A Saint in the City” opens with a selection of blown-up photographs documenting a quarter-mile-long mural by Papisto Boy, the artist whose Junkyard painting first caught the Robertses' attention. His mural, a 30-years-and-counting work in progress, intersperses images of Bamba with those of civil rights and cultural heroes like Martin Luther King Jr., Jimi Hendrix and Che Guevara. Of the four Sufi orders in Senegal, the Mouride Way is the only one with a homegrown figurehead, and Bamba's significance as a political symbol is evident in the prominence of his image during the popular youth uprising of Set/Setal from which Papisto's work emerged — a widespread, late-1980s reclamation of Dakar's public spaces, inspired by a song by Youssou N'Dour and consisting largely of semiguerrilla, public mural painting.

Nine living artists, ranging from Papisto's public-art labors of love to the serene and corporeal abstract painting of Viyé Diba, are featured in the exhibit. Stuffed into every nook and cranny of the exhibit, which is designed to mimic a number of environments including Bamba's shrine at Touba and a Dakar alleyway, are scores of anonymous everyday appearances of Bamba's image — on pamphlets, cassettes, post cards, clocks, shirts, watches, cuttlefish bones, calendars, buses and especially business signage (an optometry stand, a lumberyard, a restaurant, et cetera). Perhaps the most remarkable fact about this superabundance of visual matter is that it all derives from the only known photo of Bamba, taken by French authorities one sun-bleached day in 1913 and reproduced four years later in a book (alongside the only known image of Lamp Fall, Bamba's main disciple and the focus of a subdivision of Mouride as well as a section of the exhibit). From this single low-resolution, high-contrast reproduction sprang the colorful cornucopia of variations that constantly renews itself in Senegal's urban landscape and in the studios of artists and healers.

ONE HIGHLIGHT OF THE EXHIBITION IS THE re-creation of healer Serigne Faye's “imagorium,” an immersive environment replete with trompe l'oeil ceiling panels depicting paradise; Assane Dione's photorealist portraits of Bamba's many children and successors; and spinning, multicolored disco lights engraved with the 99 names of God. The section called “Healing Words” includes two of the best artists in the show — Serigne Batch, a healer who inscribes prayer papers with calligraphy and geometric forms before rolling them into belts or dissolving them in water to be consumed by his clients; and Elimane Fall, whose wildly inventive posters — strangely reminiscent of those of Japanese graphic-design genius Tadanori Yokoo — serve as props in his efforts to turn youth away from drugs and prostitution and toward a spiritually nourishing devotion to Bamba.

Then there's the brilliant, animation cel-like glass paintings of Mor Gueye, recognized as the dean of the traditional Senegalese medium and a man willing to tackle any subject matter. While dozens of his works are scattered throughout the show, the main group consists of pictures of Bamba's stations — a series of the saint's archetypal encounters with adversity that are repeated constantly throughout Mouride artworks. Here you'll find Sheikh Amadou Bamba Praying on the Waters, based on the account of how, forbidden to perform his prayers on the ship transporting him into exile, Bamba cast his prayer mat on the surface of the ocean and made his obeisances as pious fish gathered 'round for benediction.

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

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