Caught Up in the Aura of a Senegalese Saint

HOLLAND COTTER – The New York Times

Copyright 2005 – The New York Times Published 2/16/05
GAINESVILLE, Fla., Feb. 11 – Listen, if you haven’t yet, to the great pop stars of Senegal: Youssou N’Dour, Cheikh Lo, Baaba Maal. You’ll adore what you hear and discover what they have in common, like the hustle and ping of their sound, etched with koras and horns. The other is what they sing about: transfixing passion, not for earthly lovers but for the holy men, marabouts, the Sufi saints of Islam. Theirs is a Higher Love, so high it’s out of sight.
Among the saints’ names, one recurs, over and over: Sheikh Amadou Bamba, founder of the African Sufi movement known as the Mouride Way. And far from being out of sight, his white-robed, dark-skinned figure is visible everywhere in the modern city of Dakar: inside homes, shops, in public murals, in paintings and prints sold in markets, in amulets worn around the neck.
He’s also omnipresent now at the Samuel P. Harn Museum of Art here, in the traveling show “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal.” Like Bamba himself, it’s out of the ordinary, an event. Its heady mix of materials – high and low, sacred and profane – is a joy to the eye. But more important, it introduces us to an art we don’t know, an Africa and an Islam we don’t know.
When I say “African art,” what do you think? Villages, carved masks, “primitive”? But Mouride art is cosmopolitan and modern, portrait painting and history painting, calligraphy and photography. How about “Islam”? Fundamentalist? Anti-Western? Dangerous? Well, there are many Islams, and Sufism, mystical and pacific, is one. The plan for living Bamba prescribed is based on tolerance, generosity and hard work, values most Americans treasure.
Bamba was born in Senegal in 1853 and became a spiritual leader and, by default, a potent political figure at the height of French colonialism. The French tried hard to make him disappear; they kept him under house arrest until his death in 1927.
But their efforts only intensified his charisma, which continues today, through a proliferation of images, almost all variations on the only known photograph of him, taken in 1913.
In it, he stands outdoors against the wooden walls of a mosque, squinting at the camera. He’s dressed in white, and his head is covered by a turbanlike shawl, one end obscuring the lower half of his face. So strong is the midday glare that his hands and right foot are lost in shadow. To the average Western viewer, their absence is an accident of photography. To the Mouride believer, it is proof of Bamba’s superhuman status: what need does a transcendent being have of hands and feet?
It is this attitude, the attitude of the believer – not of the art historian or the anthropologist or the sociologist – that prevails in the show, which has been organized by Allen F. Roberts, director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at the University of California, at Los Angeles, and Mary Nooter Roberts, deputy director of the U.C.L.A. Fowler Museum of Cultural History, where it originally appeared in a larger form.
Belief is in the air from the minute you enter the galleries and catch Mr. N’Dour’s sweet, high, ardent voice. “Do you hear me, Father Bamba?” he sings. And it takes visual form in panoramic photographs of a 600-foot-long mural painted by a Mouride street artist known as Papisto Boy…
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