Allen F. Roberts

Distinguished Professor

E-mail: aroberts@arts.ucla.edu Office: Kaufman 130E Fields of interest: Theories of Culture, Visual Cultures, Comparative Religion, Africa and Its Diasporas

Although Allen F. Roberts’ graduate training was in socio-cultural Anthropology, with a B.A. from Amherst College, M.A. and Ph.D. degrees from the University of Chicago, and a postdoc in the University of Michigan Society of Fellows, he has worn a lot of different hats ever since. Early on, he 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.

At the University of Chicago his Ph.D. advisor was the late Victor Turner, a noted theorist of ritual, religion, and performance studies; and he 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. His 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 his many writings on arts and expressive cultures of central Africa.

As his teaching career began at the University of Michigan and Albion College, de 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 him 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 his doctoral research that opened at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art. More recently, Professor Roberts 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, his 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, his spouse, Dr. Mary “Polly” Nooter Roberts (Professor of World Arts and Cultures and an Africanist art historian at UCLA) and he have conducted research, co-authored books, and curated thematic museum exhibitions together. Their 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 their field research in Germany, Ghana, India, and especially the Indian-Ocean republic of Mauritius (see www.shirdisaibabavirtualsaint.org). Professor Roberts is 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.

Professor Roberts’ teaching at UCLA concerns theories of culture, myth and ritual, visual cultures, space and place; and he maintains interest and offer occasional courses in African Studies. Interdisciplinary approaches are the watchword—and being able to wear many different hats!


  • Postdoctoral Fellow, Michigan Society of Fellows, University of Michigan, 1980-1, 1984-5.
  • Ph.D. (1980) and MA (1972) in Socio-Cultural Anthropology, University of Chicago.
  • B.A. (1968) in Socio-Cultural Anthropology, Amherst College.

Featured Works

Selected Publications


  • “Spiritscapes of the Indian Ocean World” (with M.N.Roberts), in Afrique/Asie, D. Malaquais, ed. Paris: PURH 2015
  • “Icons from the End of Days: Visual Hagiography Among Layennes of Senegal,” World Art, 2013.
  • “Movement of Ideas and Forms Between Central and Eastern Africa,” in Shangaa! Art of Tanzania, CUNY, 2013.
  • “Citoyenneté visuel au Sénégal contemporain,” Les arts de la citoyenneté, M. Diouf, ed. Karthala, 2013.
  • “Performing Cosmology,” in African Cosmos, C. Kreamer, ed. Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, 2012.
  • “‘Sufi Arts of Senegal” (with M. N. Roberts), Companion to African Religions, E. Bongmba, ed. Blackwell, 2012.
  • “Les arts itératifs au Sénégal” (with M. N. Roberts), La fabrique des images, Musée du quai Branly 2010.
  • “Resignification and the Migration of Images,” in Religion and Material Culture, D. Morgan, ed. Routledge, 2009.
  • “Flickering Images, Floating Signifiers” (with M.N.Roberts), Material Religion, 2008.
  • “Mystical Graffiti and the Refabulation of Dakar” (with M.N.Roberts), Africa Today, 2008.

Professional Activities

  • Professor (Step 8), Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance, UCLA (from July 1999).
  • Professor (affiliated), Department of French and Francophone Studies, UCLA (from 2002).
  • Co-editor, African Arts; Editorial Boards, Material Religion, and World Arts (all peer-reviewed journals)

Major Exibitions of African Art

  • Co-curator with Tom Joyce, Henry Drewal, and William Dewey, “Striking Iron: The Art of African Blacksmiths,”
    major book and traveling exhibition hosted by the UCLA Fowler Museum, projected for 2018.
  • Co-curator with M. N. Roberts, “A Global Saint in a Virtual World,” Wellin Museum, Hamilton College, 2016.
  • Co-author/curator with Mary Nooter Roberts, “A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal,” a major NEHfunded
    book and exhibition at the UCLA Fowler Museum, 2003-2008, six venues across the U.S.
  • Co-curator with Carol Brown (Director, Durban Art Gallery), “‘Break the Silence’: Art and HIV/AIDS in
    South Africa,” UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2002.
  • Co-author/curator with Mary Nooter Roberts, “A Sense of Wonder,” 1997-1999, six venues across the U.S..
  • Co-author/curator with Mary Nooter Roberts, “The Shape of Belief,” de Young Museum of Art, San Fran, 1996.
  • Co-author/editor with Mary Nooter Roberts, “MEMORY: Luba Art and the Making of History,” major NEHfunded
    book and exhibition organized by the Museum for African Art, NYC, 1996-1998, five venues.
  • Author/curator, “Animals in African Art: From the Familiar to the Marvelous,” major NEH-funded book and
    exhibition organized by the Museum for African Art, NYC, 1995-1997, five venues across the U.S.
  • Principal consultant/writer, “Recycled, Reseen,” Museum of International Folk Art, Santa Fe, 1996-1998,
  • Curator/author/editor, “The Rising of a New Moon: A Century of Tabwa Art” NEH-funded book and exhibition
    organized at the U-Michigan Museum of Art, 1986-1987, Smithsonian, Royal Museum of Central Africa.
  • Co-founder with the late Mary Kujawski Roberts, African National Museums Project (Bénin, Gabon, Mali; 1984-9).