POLLY IN THE CLASSROOM
Known affectionately around the world as Polly, Dr. Mary Nooter Roberts (October 26, 1959–September 11, 2018), was an inspired and inspiring mentor. I am just one of the fortunate students to have joined her in either a classroom or museum. In addition to her impressive career at the Center (later Museum) for African Art in New York City, the Fowler Museum at UCLA, and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Polly taught courses at Swarthmore College, Columbia University, the University of Iowa, and UCLA, as well as sitting on committees and mentoring countless students from other institutions. Her commanding intellect, generous spirit, and infectious laugh affected all who benefited from her guidance. As Sylas Cooper, one of her undergraduate students at UCLA, stated, “She changed what I wanted to do with my life. In her classes, we focused a lot on art but it's more like we focused on what we can do to change the world.”1
Polly came early to her engagement with Africa's artists and thinkers, though she always welcomed—and often attracted—students from diverse global backgrounds, including those whose knowledge of Africa was minimal. As a young child, she had the opportunity to live in Liberia. Later, during a summer break from Scripps College, where she double majored in French and philosophy, she visited her parents in Tanzania and decided to pursue a graduate degree in African art history. For her dissertation, she embarked upon her groundbreaking research of Luba arts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire). Riding her motorcycle through the foliage, Polly was able to meet with and undergo initiation with a female diviner and worked closely with the Mbudye society of Luba royal historians.
The insights Polly gained into different systems of thought by moving between languages and disciplines and by delving into the depths of knowledge contained within dreams, spiritual realms, and political structures while living in Congo profoundly shaped the manner by which she approached material objects. Along with her husband, intellectual collaborator, and soul mate, Allen F. Roberts (Al), Polly would teach and demonstrate in exhibitions that objects work. Art objects are not passive; they do things, and the people who make them are individuals, with spouses, parents, children, and profound knowledge. As UCLA graduate student Elaine Sullivan told me, “Polly always made it clear that art is about people.”2
During the summer of 1992, I had the remarkable experience of being Polly's intern on her exhibition Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals. It was then that I first encountered her extraordinary generosity as a scholar. Although I was still an undergraduate, she treated me as an equal and even encouraged me to publish a small article on the topic of secrecy for the children's journal Faces. She brought this same empowering style of mentorship to all her students. Wherever they have taught, Al and Polly have welcomed students and colleagues into their home and created close-knit, feisty, and deeply rewarding communities of scholars. As a graduate student of Polly and Al's at the University of Iowa, I was offered the gift of eating meals with them, babysitting for their children, participating in graduate seminars held in their living room, and witnessing their extraordinary love. I well remember having animated conversations about the neurological, performative, and artistic nature of memory as they wrote and traveled the groundbreaking book and exhibition Memory: Luba Arts and the Making of History. They also drew in students from the earliest stages of their research projects. I will never forget sitting on their living room floor while Polly and Al shared the first stages of their research into the dynamic intersections of work, faith, and visual expression among Mouride communities of urban Senegal. Polly had accompanied Al on a trip to Dakar. While he researched “The Ironies of System D” in the metal scrap yards of Dakar, Polly became fascinated by the recurring image of the Sufi prophet Sheikh Amadou Bamba, which she found painted on walls, framed in shops, and sometimes displayed in the form of photocopies on walls, floors, and windows. Polly would go on to travel with students, like Neelima Jeychandran, as her omnivorous curiosity extended her field of research to India and the Hindu saint Shirdi Sai Baba.
Polly's far-reaching interests are reflected in the courses she offered, from “Body Politics,” to “Curating Cultures,” “Performing Memory,” “Arts of Time,” and “Ways of Seeing.” Grounded in a mindfulness of the specific economic, social, spiritual, and personal contexts that give rise to cultural production, Polly and Al's students have worked with creative forces around the globe to produce profoundly insightful new research into topics as diverse as analyzing the multiple meanings of cultural heritage sites in Ghana and southwestern India to tracing the production, sale, collection, and exhibition of Haitian arts, and to shape new approaches in museums and universities within the United States and abroad.
Polly taught so much more than the history of objects, museum practice, and theory, however. She shared her own experiences of navigating such logistical challenges as transporting baby food to Senegal, or the emotional ups and downs of traveling alone and having relationships while carrying out research. When diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, Polly was equally forthcoming on the insights she gained, and challenges she faced, as she continued to teach and curate while undergoing time-consuming and frequently uncomfortable treatments. Rather than slowing down, Polly's life with cancer expanded to include fundraising and outreach—including participation in a music video—through her efforts with the Susan G. Komen Los Angeles County breast cancer foundation alongside her teaching, curatorial work, family life, and rich friendships.
Kelsey Petersen, a former UCLA undergraduate currently pursuing a Masters at Tufts University, describes being “completely mesmerized” by Polly's experiences—the sharing of which during her years teaching at UCLA came to be accompanied by double-stuffed golden Oreos.3 For myself and countless other women, Polly will always remain a guiding light for the manner with which she balanced the demands of an active career alongside those of family. I will never forget her nursing her son, Sid, while simultaneously guiding a class; nor can I forget the pioneering manner in which both she and Al brought their young sons to conferences—an occurrence that is fortunately no longer so rare.
Polly's candor made conversations easy and prepared emerging scholars to embrace the full range of what it means to be human and get beyond such fraught roles as “authority” and “subject.” She also prepared parents. Former student (and currently assistant professor of art history at Emory University) Susan Gagliardi jokes of how often her mother has reminded her that when Susan left for Burkina Faso for her own doctoral research, Polly called her mom to just talk, listen, and offer assurances that Susan would be fine.4
In recognition of her gift for teaching Polly was awarded the Dai Sensei/Master Teacher Award of the Ethnic Arts Council of Los Angeles in 2017, but neither this, not the Knight of the Order of the Arts and Letters she received from the Republic of France in 2007, nor her Lifetime Leadership Award of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association (ACASA) in 2017, capture the fullness of her influence. She led with heart, mind, faith, and actions.
POLLY IN THE MUSEUM
Many people probably remember Polly's laugh. It was high and light and musical and a tiny bit silly. It always made you want to laugh with her—which was often a good and necessary thing in the early days at the Center for African Art. When we got some bad news—“the plexi can't be delivered before Thursday”—Polly's spontaneous laughter rang out. Where others were thinking “Disaster! We'll never make it now!” her optimistic laugh said, “This is so bad it's funny—ridiculous! Of course we'll do it.” More often than not, we all smiled and together leaned hard on the problem until somehow we did make it.
Polly Nooter, as a student in her first professional job, walked step in step with me for a decade as an essential part of the Center for African Art (later Museum for African Art): through two years of its founding and opening, through the mounting of exhibition after exhibition, and the publication of all their books until, as Dr. Polly Nooter Roberts, she left having curated two major traveling exhibitions based on her field research: Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals with an edited book, and Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History which she co-curated and co-authored with Allen F. Roberts, her husband, intellectual partner, and the love of her life. Those books remain two of the Center for African Art's most important publications.
But back in year one of the Center for African Art, in a scant ten months, she wrote the catalogue and helped put together our second exhibition and publication, Sets Series and Ensembles, curated by George Preston—and did about a third of everything else. That exhibition presented loans from no fewer than fifty-seven private collections in the United States and France and from eight museums (including the Metropolitan, the Smithsonian, and the Menil)—though at the time, all administrative, curatorial, publication, and registrarial work fell to Polly, me, and Administrative Assistant Petty Benitez. Polly was already an astonishingly effective, thoughtful museum curator and a very fast learner. Because we were always a tiny staff undertaking huge traveling exhibition projects, it was consequential that she was so remarkably warm, supportive, and collegial in a museum that quickly became a training ground for other relatively young, inexperienced future museum professionals. Carol Thompson is one who remembers being relieved by Polly's confident laugh during tense moments. During those years, Polly left the Center periodically for extended dissertation research in Congo and Europe and to complete her Columbia PhD, but I can't really imagine the Center could have accomplished all it did without the specific qualities Polly brought to the fledgling museum.
Polly's brilliance, speed, and warmth, already visible in her earliest years, built an unrivaled and truly protean career. She blended old-school and new-school research; museum and academic work; classical, then Islamic African art, then Indian visual culture, too. This is the career of a celebrated scholar, curator, teacher, speaker, and administrator—a model for the upcoming generation.
Admittedly, some of her accomplishments would be hard to follow: Polly became the first French Knight in our field—a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, Republic of France, recognizing her promotion of francophone African art. As the Susan G. Komen Survivor Speaker, she delivered the keynote speech on cancer prevention and research at the opening ceremonies of the 2015 Los Angeles Race for the Cure at Dodger Stadium, with some 15,000 people in attendance (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iAGFUGLn6E).
At the relatively young age of 58, Polly was honored with a rare ACASA Leadership Award—only about six are named every decade. Readers of African Arts will agree: this recognition from her own field that her work was of uncommon importance to us caps the many other high awards and distinctions she received. Among them were our field's highest publication awards for not one but two of her books: the College Art Association's Alfred Barr for Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996); and the African Studies Association's Herskovits as well as ACASA's own Arnold Rubin for A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (2003), both co-authored with Allen F. Roberts.
As a scholar, Polly conducted research of a kind rare today: three different, multiyear, old-school field work projects addressed first to classical, then to current topics: field work among the Luba peoples of the Democratic Republic of the Congo; field work on a mystical Islamic movement in urban Senegal; and field work on arts associated with a saint in India, ongoing at the time of her death. Her work provides an observational, fieldwork model as a different kind of approach to understanding contemporary arts. She also demonstrated the possibility that a scholar can move fruitfully between arts of the African diaspora, of Islamic Africa, and the historic African arts, each study being enriched by the understanding and experience of the other because each is a deep, decade-long project.
In museums, Polly curated, co-curated, or managed over fifty exhibitions in senior curatorial positions, starting in the mid-1980s at the Center for African Art, then at the Fowler Museum and LACMA, and in personal collaborations with curators at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. This astonishing number is testament to her flexibility and to her supportive spirit as she generously helped other scholars and curators realize their own visions.
And Polly also had a whole career as a teacher and compelling public speaker. In addition to her popular UCLA classes and Fowler and LACMA museum lectures, she wanted to educate and enlighten—everybody, students of course, but also broader publics. She was widely in demand as a panelist and lecturer delivering speeches, papers, and keynotes for many years at the rate of about one a month across the States and beyond, including in Russia, Japan, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland—and she gave countless public education lectures and press and television interviews. Type her name into YouTube and “about 92” results appear—you can still see and hear Polly talking passionately and eloquently on multiple subjects about which she felt strongly and wants to educate you.
As this short summary makes clear, Polly was not only brilliant at what she did but she was prodigiously productive, authoring or co-authoring fourteen books and sixty-one articles in books and journals in a career cut short. When I saw her extremely long c.v. I told her it looked as if she and Al, her frequent co-author, must have worked all day and all night, all week every week, year in and year out. She laughed her famous laugh, but I recognized the energy and efficiency that she unfailingly brought to her work since those long days at the Center for African Art decades before.
It only looked as if they just worked all the time. She and Al also had plenty of time for countless friends and close collaborators and above all for their two sons who, as toddlers, might appear playing near the lectern and often accompanied them on research trips. For eight years, Polly lived with Stage IV cancer, which she approached with characteristic forthrightness, optimism, concern for others, and unassuming courage. She used her experiences as a patient to deepen her teaching and writing about African cultural approaches to healing, wellness, and community that are vital for survival. She became a tenacious advocate and prominent speaker for cancer research. Cancer in all its manifestations was like a second demanding career for her, running alongside the demanding one she already had, but her determination to treat her own case and her instinct to help others and support the cause made it imperative.
Now that I think of it, Polly embodied the old virtues of faith—she was unflinchingly loyal to people and institutions; hope—she always believed people and things were probably going to turn out well; and charity, or love. She loved many individuals, her large family and far, far beyond. She loved ideas and objects and teaching and students, lecturing, changing public opinions, and helping other people. She loved beauty and colors and bold, well-designed silver necklaces. She understood her own beauty in African terms: not as personal vanity but beauty as an offering, something everybody should practice for the pleasure of others.
POLLY IN THE WORLD
Discussing her pas de deux with metastatic cancer, Polly's husband (and my old bud) Al Roberts would sometimes say, “she is an outlier of an outlier.” Eight-and-a-half years is indeed a long time to keep the emperor of maladies at bay, and Polly believed she had found the best strategies to do just that. As she said,
I am convinced that doing what you love most is the best medicine. The detours that breast cancer places in our path can lead us to doorways of self-discovery and resilience, and embolden us to find our calling. Survival is about HOW WE LIVE, HOW WE LOVE, and WHAT WE DO with the time we are given.
But Polly's amazing ability to dance with her malady was only a part of being the outlier Al described. More important, I believe, is how she filled those challenging years with her energy, her grace, and her astounding talents. Polly the Wünderkind who burst on the hyper-energetic New York art scene in the early ‘90s as senior curator at the Museum for African Art; her award winning co-curatorships with Al on the Luba and Making of History and A Saint in the City; her various curatorial and leadership roles at the Fowler Museum; her presidency of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association; and her co-editorship of African Arts …her engagements with African art enterprises only seemed to multiply during these last eight years, as Polly became curator of African Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
As Peter Haffner, one of her PhD students in the UCLA Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance noted, Polly “continued, even until her last days, to help museums rethink African arts, and get audiences to look at art objects without old colonial misconceptions, but instead as objects made by real people who have families, lives, fears and desires.” In this same vein, Cedar Bough Seiji, who now teaches at UBC in Vancouver, posted,
Yesterday when I found out that an important mentor, a brilliant professor, and one of the women I really model myself after had died I was pretty much a mess. I spent the rest of the night alternating between being angry, soggy with tears, and trying not to think about anything by watching a movie I'd already watched. But that would not be what Polly would want. So today I took a bike ride and I did it at a nice pace, for fun, not killing myself or achieving exercise goals. And I thought about Polly and everything she did for me and taught me. I looked at the water where it met the sky and thought of Polly and all the places she'd done that around the world. I felt her gifts to me, the model she'd been to me, I reconnected with how much I want to be someone as amazing as her. As I was on my way home I passed a woman with an obvious flat tire. I braked, turned around and commenced helping. Polly always lifted other people up. She never begrudged some time to help someone. If she could, she did, willingly. It felt really like an appropriate part of remembering Polly, to gladly help someone like she helped me. I'll miss you Polly. But I'll never forget your lessons.
It was in 2010, during Al and Polly's research for an exhibition to be titled A Global Saint in a Virtual World: Devotional Diasporas for Shirdi Sai Baba, that she was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer. Polly and Al announced the diagnosis to their friends, eschewing the confessional mode in favor of a plain explanation of prospects and treatments. They continued this mode of honest discourse for all the eight years that followed.
Soon after their announcement Henrietta and I visited Polly and Al. I noted that they had set up a small altar in their living room, with images of divine intercessors from various religious traditions, including the miracle worker Sai Baba and St. Agnes, the patron of women afflicted by breast cancer. Later, as we were leaving, I embraced Polly and she began to weep, confessing that she had already made funeral arrangements at Westwood Village Memorial Park, but that she was determined to do all in her power to live long enough to see her son Sid graduate from high school. Eight years later, Polly attended the White Coat ceremonies for Sid, who was being inducted into med school at USC. As Tina Turner promised, Love would find a Way.
Henrietta and I last saw Polly in May 2018, on our first trip back to LA since moving to Boston in 2015. She had invited us to lunch at one of her favorite restaurants, Rays, at LACMA. We had a delightful time. She was of course the very model of elegance, slim and tall, dressed in a chic pants suit, a polychromatic scarf wrapped around her neck, adorned with clumps of jewelry from Baluchistan or Botswana … in truth, looking more like she had just emerged from a fashion runway rather than a curatorial meeting at LACMA. She was bubbling with laughter, full of gossip about the Museum, and her hopes to acquire a magnificent Ijo sculpture from a group of blue rinse patrons … and plans for another hallmark African show she'd been asked to curate in 2020. But then she also told us that her cancer had spread significantly … and her doctor's decision to concentrate on protecting her major organs from further invasions. As we said good-bye we feared we would not see Polly again. And of course we didn't. But we also knew then, and we know now, that we will never meet her equal again, and that we were so damn lucky to have been her friend for so long a time.
Sylas Cooper quoted in Maya McNealis, “Professor ‘Polly’ Nooter Roberts, Activist and Inspiration, Dies at 58.” The Daily Bruin, September 28, 2018. https://dailybruin.com/2018/09/28/professor-polly-nooter-roberts-activist-and-inspiration-dies-at-58/
Email with the author, December 5, 2018.
Email with the author, February 16, 2019.
Email with the author, October 19, 2018.