TELLING A STORY THROUGH ART: Part of the exhibit Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews at the Fowler Museum. (Courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA)

TELLING A STORY THROUGH ART: Part of the exhibit Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews at the Fowler Museum. (Courtesy Fowler Museum at UCLA)

If you’ve never been to the UCLA Fowler Museum, you’re missing out. This small gem of a museum brings the world’s folk art treasures to our doorstep.

The current show, Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives, coupled with Light and Shadows: The Story of Iranian Jews will open your mind to visions of life, from anthropological, political and cultural perspectives across time, both within and beyond our borders.

On long-term view, Intersections features a selection of objects from Asia, Africa, the Pacific and the Americas, representing some of the Fowler’s 750,000-piece permanent collection of archeological and art objects. They range in age from three centuries before the common era through the present. What marks them is a combination of form and function: whether beautiful or frightening to look at, they are imbued with significance, aesthetic objects that represent the beliefs and spirits of the peoples from which they emerge.

The show is organized into four sections: art and knowledge, art and power, art and action and art and transformation.

Entering the exhibition from the central courtyard hallway, the first view is of a stunning tapestry by the artist El Anatsui, born in Ghana but a practicing artist and art professor in Nigeria. He creates wall-sized works out of discarded objects, “weaving” detritus into beauty. It’s both a transformative act, turning trash into art, and a political commentary about commercialization and its impact on African culture.

Thousands upon thousands of liquor bottle tops are flattened out and connected together with wire to create this “tapestry,” an object traditionally associated with first world wealth and luxury, but made from objects that have been discarded by the poverty-stricken of the third world. It hangs like a rich, golden drape from the wall, but only when you get close up do you see the elements from which it is made, offering an opportunity to reflect upon the impact of globalization on native cultures.

Across the gallery, from Mexico there’s a wonderful corner array filled with the renowned black and white papier-mâché skeleton figures (calaveras) that help Mexicans accept death as a natural extension of the cycle of life.

In the same gallery, another sculpture in wood, featuring figures surrounding a coffin being buried, comes from South Africa and represents the death of the apartheid era.

Dolls, headdresses and masks from Japan, Papua New Guinea, Nigeria and elsewhere; ceramic vessels from Peru;  and woven textiles from Africa all combine to present a grand vision of the differences that divide us and the spirit of creativity that unites us as human beings.

 

A little-known story

 

Over 2,700 years, the history of the Jews in Iran (Persia) is half as long as the history of Judaism itself. Exiled from Jerusalem to Babylonia, they fell into the Persian sphere through a series of battles and wars. Although during a few enlightened periods of time that allowed Jews to flourish, for most of their history they were caught between the warring factions of Islam and considered “impure” by Islamic standards. From a population of hundreds of thousands to a mere 25,000 Jews in Iran today, they have been isolated not only from other Jews across the world, but within their own ranks.

On view at the Fowler is a collection of objects that honor the individual traditions that arose during these eras, beginning with the story of Queen Esther, who foiled a plot to exterminate her people and who is remembered through renditions of the biblical book that tells her story, through amulets and images of her tomb, still a site of pilgrimages today.

Marriage contracts, illuminated documents, religious objects and ritual garments are featured, along with archeological objects verifying the long-standing historical existence of Jews in Persia. Forced to convert to Islam, a group of “crypto-Jews” of Mashad created objects they could wear hidden beneath their clothing and their own unique Hebrew-lettered version of the Persian language to keep their traditions alive privately.

In fact, traditional classical Iranian music itself was kept alive by Jews, who were relegated to professions considered beneath the dignity of the Persians, musicians among them.

The added benefit of the Fowler show is its connection to the Los Angeles community, also known as “Tehrangeles” because of the vast migration to the West Coast following the deposition of the Shah of Iran. Contemporary photographs, videos and artworks make the connection to modern day Iranian Jews in L.A., an act that is emblematic of the mission of The Fowler Museum at UCLA.

Find out more at www.fowler.ucla.edu or call (310) 825-4361. And by the way, you won’t find a more interesting gift store, a great place to find unique holiday and celebratory items for friends and family.

 

Give me a backbeat

 

At the Ahmanson Theatre, “Backbeat: The Birth of the Beatles” tells the story of the Beatles before they made it big. But it could just as easily been called “The Stuart Sutcliffe Story.”

Before they became the mop-topped Fab Four, the Quarrymen were five Liverpudlians, with the core trio of John, Paul and George joined by drummer Pete Best and bassist Stu Sutcliffe. Stu (played by Nick Blood), a highly promising art student with no prior experience as a bass player, is recruited for his “cool” factor by his best friend and the irresistible force of nature known as John Lennon (Andrew Knott).

The story, loudly punctuated by early Beatles music performed live onstage, tells us how the band got to Hamburg, Germany, where they cut their teeth and became The Beatles, and how Stuart is torn between the band’s burgeoning success, his inner struggle to remain true to his art and his deep love affair with photographer Astrid, whose photos launched the image of the band to the world.

Don’t expect a tribute band or exact impersonations of John, Paul and George. It’s a fun, if slightly less-than-fulfilling, romp through the history of one the most legendary musical groups of all time. “Backbeat” plays at the Ahmanson Theatre through March 1. Tickets at CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 628-2772.

 

Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for National Public Radio and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She has also reviewed theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.

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