Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts

sm Polly Shaping Power 

Mary (Polly) Nooter Roberts, Professor

African visual and performance arts; critical museum and curatorial studies; the body and female representation; arts of divination, healing, and efficacy; cross-cultural approaches to memory, writing, and inscription; and women's health advocacy

Joined WAC in 2001

Office: 130B Glorya Kaufman Hall

Tel (310) 206-6211

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Roberts is an art historian (PhD Columbia University, 1991) who studies the philosophical underpinnings of African visual and performance-based arts, and the translation of cultural experience into museum exhibitions. She was Senior Curator at the Museum for African Art in New York (1984-94), where her exhibitions and books included Secrecy: African Art that Conceals and Reveals (1993); Exhibition-ism: Museums and African Art (1994); and with Allen F. Roberts, Memory: Luba Art and the Making of History (1996), which won the College Art Association's Alfred Barr Award for outstanding museum scholarship.

From 1999 – 2008, she served as Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. Her exhibitions and publications produced at the Fowler Museum include: Body Politics: The Female Image in Luba Art and the Sculpture of Alison Saar (2000); A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (2003), with Allen F. Roberts, which won both the Herskovits Award and the Arnold Rubin Outstanding Publication Award; Inscribing Meaning: Writing and Graphic Systems in African Art (2007); and Continental Rifts: Contemporary Time-Based Arts of Africa (2009).

In addition to her fulltime professorship, Dr. Roberts serves as Consulting Curator of African Art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) where she has assisted the museum in launching a permanent new program and dedicated gallery for the arts of Africa. In July 2013 the gallery was inaugurated with an exhibition that she curated entitled Shaping Power: Luba Masterworks from the Royal Museum for Central Africa. See link for more information and video, as well as the WAC/D News Archive for related media:


Dr. Roberts has been a Getty Fellow and held other grants and awards; has served as President of the Arts Council of the African Studies Association; and is an editor of African Arts journal. In 2007, she was decorated as a Knight in the Order of Arts and Letters by the Republic of France for her promotion of francophone African arts.

Her two major research areas have been in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where she did long-term dissertation field research among Luba peoples, and Senegal, where she has conducted ongoing field research since 1994 with Allen F. Roberts on a Sufi movement called the Mouride Way. Her new project with Al Roberts focuses on the visual and expressive arts associated with a South Asian saint named Shirdi Sai Baba, and his devotional diasporas in the Indian Ocean World. As the recipient of a Wenner-Gren grant, she embarked on multi-sited field research in 2009/10 to Mauritius, Germany, and India to document this vibrant visual and performative phenomenon. Together the Roberts are guest-curating an exhibition and co-authoring the accompanying book entitled A Global Saint in a Virtual World: Devotional Diasporas of Shirdi Sai Baba for the Wellin Museum of Art at Hamilton College, to open in Fall 2016:  http://www.hamilton.edu/wellin/exhibitions/detail/a-global-saint-in-a-virtual-world-devotional-diasporas-of-shirdi-sai-baba . The Roberts have also created a website that demonstrates the powerful role of new media and digital devotion in this widespread spiritual movement: http://www.shirdisaibabavirtualsaint.org best viewed through Mozilla Firefox.

Among the courses that Professor Roberts teaches are Curating Cultures, a graduate and undergraduate seminar that addresses issues in the politics of representation and display; Body Politics in African Art, an undergraduate seminar that explores cross-cultural theories of the body and gendered arts and performances in African and diasporic contexts, both historical and contemporary; Performing Memory, a graduate level seminar that draws upon memory theory to consider the active roles that memory and history play in visual and performance arts across cultures; and Arts of Writing and Inscription, which considers an expanded definition of “writing” to enable greater consideration of the world’s diverse systems of inscription and graphic expression.

Dr. Roberts has been instrumental in the formation of a new major field in Critical Museum and Curatorial Studies within the department, and serves as a mentor to students interested in this area of both theory and practice. She teaches a core undergraduate course entitled World Arts, Local Lives that is built around the Fowler Museum’s long-term display entitled “Intersections,” for which Dr. Roberts served as Project Director. She has also developed a course with staff at the Fowler and Hammer Museums entitled Intro to Museology: Exhibitions and Education. Many of her courses use the museum as a focal point of analysis and the city of Los Angeles as a field research site for special projects. For a glimpse into her history and passions for teaching and curating, see link below:


In addition to her scholarship, teaching, and curating, Polly Roberts is a breast cancer survivor, advocate, and spokesperson. Since 2013 she has been on the organizing committee for conferences hosted by the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s Los Angeles affiliate to raise awareness about Stage IV metastatic breast cancer (MBC). In March 2015 she was honored to be the invited Keynote Survivor Speaker for the Komen Los Angeles Race for the Cure at Dodger Stadium https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4iAGFUGLn6E&feature=youtu.be. She and her 2014 Body Politics class were featured in a CBS health segment about living and thriving with MBC http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/video/11208452-lisa-sigells-health-watch-march-6/. And she was one of ten survivors invited to participate in a powerful music video to celebrate the new Komen survivor anthem, #STRONG, by acclaimed British singer/song-writer, Matt Goss, who dedicated this inspirational song to his beloved mother whom he lost to breast cancer in 2014, and to all those affected by cancer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4Kl4461cv0. Polly’s story and messages for all survivors are told in this account: http://ww5.komen.org/Breast-Cancer-Stories/Dr_-Polly-Roberts.html. Roberts hopes to find more ways to advocate for women’s health and wellbeing through the Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance and its ardent commitment to arts activism and global health.

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Fri Apr 21 @ 8:00PM
A Celebration of UCLA Dance 1962-2017
Fri Apr 28 @ 8:00PM
MFA3 Upstarts Series: Made in a Marble Palace
Fri May 05 @ 7:00PM
MFA3 Upstarts Series: Fugit Tempus
Sat May 06 @ 7:00PM
MFA3 Upstarts Series: Fugit Tempus

UCLA Department of World Arts Cultures/Dance
Box 951608, 150 Kaufman Hall
Los Angeles, CA 90095-1608
Tel 310.825.3951
Email: wacinfo@arts.ucla.edu