Exhibition artwork detail.
University Art Gallery
San Diego, CA 92182
Contact Us
Gallery Hours
Monday through Thursday and Saturday
Noon to 4:00 PM
Exhibition Options


Asking for eyes

The Visual Voice of Southeast Africa
November 8 through December 4, 2004


  • Selections from the Edward M. Smith Family Art Foundation

Special Events

Friday, November 12, 2004

Reception for the Artists

7:30 to 9:00 PM, University Art Gallery

About the Exhibition

Asking for Eyes takes its title from the Xhosa proverb ucel amehlo, which translates as “he is asking for eyes (an audience),” referring to someone who is asking for esteem and admiration. Because the artistic activity of Southeast Africa reveals the cultural and spiritual aspirations of a people whose art has long been misunderstood and neglected, this exhibition seeks admiration for the creative production of this aesthetically-rich region. It asks for an audience to open its eyes and minds, to experience the private and communal life of a people through their art, which is deeply rooted in sacred rituals and social traditions. Though often unnamed and therefore unrecognized individually, the collective efforts of the artists presented in this exhibition reveal the work of an extraordinary people whose physical existence and spiritual sustenance are dependent upon their artistic achievements. Unlike the established centers of culture in West and Central Africa, where peoples such as the Benin and Dogon have lived for great lengths of time in relatively fixed kingdoms, the peoples of Southern and Eastern Africa, now inhabiting the areas extending throughout Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Swaziland, Lesotho and South Africa, are cattle-owning pastoralists who, by their very nature, travel the land in search of newer pastures for their ever-growing herds. Thus, their history is a complex one, consisting of series of migrations, rather than of settled kingdoms. Their art objects, a reflection of this semi-nomadic lifestyle, tends to be small because of the need to be portable and functional—a headrest rather than a bed, a food platter rather than a table. Likewise, their colorful beadwork has a purpose far deeper than simple ornamentation, for, although it surely fulfills this intention, it is also the outward sign of a person’s status within his or her community. The exhibition and catalogue focus on a reconsideration of our understanding of indigenous Southeast African art and culture, from the nineteenth century through the end of the twentieth century, with an emphasis on local perspectives and audience variation. Artistic continuities and innovations are combined with discussions of regional and historic change, including art produced for external markets. In addition, concepts of audience and the formulation of meaning will be contrasted with the use and understanding of proverbial sayings, an important form of verbal art in the region.

Descriptive Summary of Works in the Exhibition.

When people think of African art, they often think of masks and wooden figures. However, the art of southern Africa is very different. Due in part to their nomadic history, the artistic creativity of the indigenous population continues to be rooted in more portable items, such as headrests, dolls, ear plugs, wood and clay vessels, ceramic sculptures, staffs, pipes, wire basketry and a variety of unique snuff containers created from a diversity of materials including wood, gourd, metal, ceramic, ivory, bone and animal intestine. In addition to smaller sculptural objects, there is also an emphasis on elaborate ceremonial attire that includes inventive manipulations of beadwork, animal hides, plant fibers, metal studs, bottle caps, buttons and bike reflectors. Asking for Eyes contains over 100 fine examples of Southeast African art that date from the nineteenth through the late twentieth century.

Project Background.

Asking for Eyes was curated and organized by students in the School of Art, Design and Art History at San Diego State University in a unique program developed and coordinated by SDSU art history instructor Dr. Teri Sowell. After completing the course The Art of Sub-Saharan Africa in Fall 2003 with Dr. Sowell, students were presented with the opportunity to enroll in her Spring 2004 seminar Curatorial Practices to develop an exhibition of African art. Nineteen talented graduate and undergraduate students committed to creating an exhibition and catalogue, and to producing educational materials and managing all aspects of exhibition programming. The students’ responsibilities included research, exhibition development, exhibition design, graphic design and education, as well as development, fundraising, photography, marketing, public relations and community outreach. These students wholeheartedly embraced a shared belief in the importance of promoting African art within the art world and the greater community. The success of Asking for Eyes is a direct result of their enthusiastic and energetic efforts.

Lenders and Sponsors.

This project is made possible through the generosity of Edward and Mina Smith and the Edward M. Smith Family Art Foundation. All objects included in Asking for Eyes are part of the Edward M. Smith Family Art Foundation. The exhibition and educational programs are realized with vital support from the San Diego State University Art Council and Africa and Beyond, Ethnic Art Gallery. Institutional sponsorship is provided by the School of Art, Design and Art History and the College of Professional Studies and Fine Arts. (Recognition of partners and sponsors current as of 1 September 2004).


View all exhibitions