As scholars of visual culture, Al and Polly specialize in opening doors on hidden worlds. The shadow in Bamba's iconic image, for example, represents "the hidden side of all visible realities — a veil of ignorance that has layers of deeper meaning," says Polly, deputy director and chief curator of the Fowler Museum at UCLA. "It's very different from the Western approach," adds Al, director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center and a professor in the department of world arts and cultures.
It's fair to say that few couples in academia have done more to understand and explain one of the world's most fascinating places. Both Al and Polly grew up hearing stories about Africa — Polly spent part of her childhood there, and Al was a Peace Corps volunteer in Chad. With 60 years of combined scholarship between them, Al and Polly are among the world's foremost experts on the cultural and aesthetic underpinnings of Africa's visual arts.
In a world where knowledge is largely expressed in the arcane language of science and philosophy, academics like them use art, allegory, myth and symbol to tell timeless historical truths.
And with great charm. Over cups of tea and homemade banana bread, Polly points to a wooden object covered with hundreds of beads. It's a "history book embedded with knowledge," she says. In fact, every artifact in the living room has a story.
One of the major messages of Al and Polly's joint research is that while objects of artistic genius may appear beautiful — or very simple — they were created over the centuries to assist peoples in the making of their histories, thereby defining their identities, aspirations and worldviews.
This efficacy of art is particularly striking in Senegal, whose artistic prowess has deeply influenced the Robertses' intellectual and marital lives. Along with their children, they visit the country every summer, immersing themselves in its vibrant artwork and the art's astonishing impact on everything from people's daily lives to politics.
The couple's love affair with Senegal began in a junkyard in the port city of Dakar, Senegal's capital, in 1994. There, Al and Polly were struck by the sight of workers in tattered clothes disassembling and miraculously recycling a mountain of used automobile engine blocks brought over from Europe. Behind the vehicular scrap heap, in a towering wall mural, was one of Bamba's ubiquitous images, offering hope and courage to the toilers. Mesmerized by the scene, Al and Polly set about analyzing Bamba's iconography, which is linked to his teachings of pacifism, hard work and tolerance.
Their research resulted in A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal, an award-winning book whose publication in 2003 coincided with a similarly titled five-month exhibition at UCLA's Fowler Museum. Some 20,000 schoolchildren in Los Angeles visited the exhibition, which coincided with Amadou Bamba Day, officially celebrated every July 23 in Los Angeles by declaration of the Los Angeles City Council. Hailed by The New York Times as one of the 10 best of the year, the exhibition is still traveling.
In a market-driven age that pressures students to pursue financially lucrative careers, Al and Polly are refreshing role models. In fact, if their career has a message, it is that it's possible to change the world through art, whether through scholarly work or by making art an active agent of life.