Polly Nooter Roberts woke up before dawn to drive with her parents to see African villages’ masquerades during the three years she spent growing up in Liberia. Her parents’ growing interest in African arts and culture would eventually rub off onto Roberts herself.
A world arts and cultures professor at UCLA, Roberts brought her appreciation for African arts to Los Angeles in 1999. She serves as a consulting curator for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, where she uses her upbringing and experiences with African culture to curate exhibitions focused on promoting art from Africa.
Her latest exhibit, “The Inner Eye: Vision and Transcendence in African Arts,” opened Sunday at the Resnick Pavilion at LACMA, and Roberts will give a free tour of the exhibition Sunday. The exhibition showcases African art exploring different interpretations of sight and vision. For Roberts, promoting African art is important because she said she feels people can learn more about themselves through learning about African cultures.
“When we are presenting the arts and cultures of diverse people around the world … we are always going to find ourselves challenging our long-held assumptions,” Roberts said.
Roberts’ interest in African arts was first sparked when she was a child. Her father was part of the United States Foreign Service, so Roberts lived in Uruguay when she was 2 years old, then moved to Liberia three years later. Roberts gained an immense appreciation for the arts of Africa early on, especially since her mother was an artist and both of her parents were interested in African culture.
Robert Nooter, Roberts’ father, said Roberts and her four older siblings saw African art hanging on the walls of their house in Liberia and grew up in their presence. Nooter remembered trying to find a 7-foot drum in rural Liberia where a road was being built. When he and his family visited a museum in Senegal during a trip taken in Liberia, they saw the same drum in the museum.
“It was a great experience,” Nooter said. “It was a whole different culture.”
After returning to Washington, D.C., when she was 8 years old, Roberts’ mother worked at the National Museum of African Art, exposing Roberts to African cultural artifacts. One of the pieces she remembers was a scepter from the Luba tribe in Central Africa, which featured two tall female figures.
“I just lived in a world surrounded by art,” Roberts said.
But Roberts did not pursue a career in African arts at first. During her undergraduate years at Scripps College, she majored in philosophy and French literature. Roberts realized she wanted to devote her life to the African arts after spending two summers in Tanzania to visit her parents, who were living there at the time.
During her first summer in Tanzania, she was visiting local communities including the Maasai people. She said she was fascinated by their extravagant beadwork and hairstyles because of the attention to detail and meanings behind the art.
“It was destined for me that I would end up pursuing a career in the arts,” Roberts said. “It was undeniable that when I found that calling, it was the right one.”
Roberts was senior curator at the erstwhile Museum for African Art – now known as The Africa Center – in New York City from 1984 to 1994. She conducted research between 1987 and 1989 in Zaire, now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she studied the art of the Luba people in Central Africa for her doctoral dissertation in art history at Columbia University. The scepter she saw from the Museum of African Art as a child became an important part of her research.
She turned her research into an exhibition called “Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History” that featured artwork pieces such as sculptures from the Luba people, exploring the themes of memory and history. The exhibition was shown at four different museums. Similar to the current “The Inner Eye” exhibition, Roberts curated an exhibition based on how African art can interpret inanimate aspects of human life into art.
Roberts’ exhibit “The Inner Eye” is focused on the theme of vision and sight. The works are from West, Central and East Africa, and were created between the 13th and 19th centuries.
Vision and visuality can hold different meanings in African culture than in Western culture, Roberts said. In African culture, artists show how eye contact can hold different meanings in various situations – art might highlight the differences in a gaze between mother and child from the gaze of a leader, for instance.
“There is not one way of seeing, but every culture views the act of seeing with their own attributes,” Roberts said. “In Africa, ‘vision’ is more of a verb than a noun.”
Included in the exhibition is a series of 14 textiles called “Patterns of Perception” from the Kuba people in Congo, which were woven by men and embroidered by women. Some of the pieces feature subjects whose eyes are introspective or looking beyond, while others have eyes that convey power or protection, Roberts said.
Nancy Thomas, the senior deputy director for art administration and collections at LACMA, has worked with Roberts on all her exhibitions in the art museum. Thomas said she feels that Roberts is a valuable curator because of Roberts’ deep imagination and knowledge of her field, she said. Roberts combines design and storytelling skills with rich and complex art history information in her exhibitions.
Since Roberts is LACMA’s resident expert on African art, she is important to the museum because she helps the institution curate significant works of African art, Thomas said.
“I’m always in awe of how she makes that knowledge manifest in exhibitions,” Thomas said. “It’s a certain skill.”
Peter Haffner, a doctoral student in the World Arts and Cultures/Dance Department, has had Roberts serve as his dissertation co-chair for his work concerning collection and conservation on Haitian art in the United States.
Haffner feels that Roberts’ passion for African arts has been a product of her interactions with African cultures, and that this enthusiasm manifests in all of her work, he said.
“The passion that she shows in her work is infectious,” Haffner said. “It really has been a model for how I want to work.”
African arts need to be emphasized and studied in America because studying cultural art helps facilitate learning about the world, Roberts said.
“When you come face-to-face with diverse perspectives from other cultures, it always opens up your world and challenges misperceptions,” Roberts said.
To Roberts, “The Inner Eye” shows how artists can take an intangible concept like sight and transform it into a physical form.
The exhibition is significant to Roberts because it is a combination of her lifelong passion for African arts and exploring philosophical themes through art, she said.
“This exhibition … is a kind of a culmination of all my exhibitions that came before because it’s attempting to go to a place that is the unseen,” Roberts said.