Allen F. Roberts
Allen F. Roberts, Professor
Professor (affiliated), UCLA Dept of French and Francophone Studies
Theories of Culture, Visual Cultures, Comparative Religion, Africa and Its Diasporas
Office: Kaufman 130E [note: no office phone]
Although my graduate training was in socio-cultural Anthropology, with a BA from Amherst College, MA and PhD degrees from the University of Chicago, and a postdoc in the University of Michigan Society of Fellows, I have worn a lot of different hats ever since. Early on, I spent a summer as a gandy dancer on the Alaska Railroad, replacing and lining track after the horrific 1964 earthquake; participated in a prehistoric archaeology project in France; and took a year off from college to teach middle school in the Republic of Chad, returning to the same country after college as a Peace Corps Volunteer (see ).
At the University of Chicago my PhD advisor was the late Victor Turner, a noted theorist of ritual, religion, and performance studies; and I conducted 45 months of dissertation research on symbolic systems and local-level politics along the southwestern shores of Lake Tanganyika in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. My monograph in historical ethnography, A Dance of Assassins: Performing Early Colonial Hegemony in the Congo (2013, Indiana University Press) is based upon this research, as are my many writings on arts and expressive cultures of central Africa.
As my teaching career began at the University of Michigan and Albion College, I donned another hat through grants from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration to study social impacts of renewable energy technology applications in developing countries. Research in Burkina Faso, Ecuador, Gabon, Guyana, Kenya, Tunisia, the Marshall Islands, and Zimbabwe ensued. Museum-based projects also took me to Bénin, Mali, and a number of European countries, and funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities led to a book and traveling exhibition based upon my doctoral research that opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. More recently, I taught at the University of Iowa where I co-founded a foundation-funded Project for Advanced Study of Art and Life in Africa and directed the African Studies Program.
Since coming to UCLA in 1999, my interests have ranged from art and AIDS awareness to Islamic mysticism in Africa, the anthropology of architecture to African vernacular photographies, local-level politics to ritual processes. For the last twenty-plus years, my spouse, Dr. Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts (Professor of World Arts and Cultures and an Africanist art historian at UCLA) and I have conducted research, co-authored books, and curated thematic museum exhibitions together. Our projects include Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History, seen at a number of museums in the late 1990s; and A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (see http://www.fowler.ucla.edu/passporttoparadise.htm) that traveled to six institutions in the mid-2000s. New projects include a study of visual practices associated with the South Asian saint Shirdi Sai Baba, based upon our field research in Germany, Ghana, India, and especially the Indian-Ocean republic of Mauritius (see www.shirdisaibabavirtualsaint.org). I am also curating an exhibition called “Striking Iron: Arts of the African Blacksmith” with art historians Henry Drewal (Wisconsin) and Bill Dewey (Penn State), and the noted blacksmith Tom Joyce, that will be sponsored by the UCLA Fowler Museum. More hats.
My teaching at UCLA concerns theories of culture, myth and ritual, visual cultures, space and place; and I maintain interest and offer occasional courses in African Studies. Interdisciplinary approaches are the watchword—and being able to wear many different hats!