The African artist and writer who mapped new worlds

African art has had a place in the Museum of Modern Art since its inception – albeit not the African art you might think. In 1935, when the museum was located in a townhouse on West 53rd Street, curator James Johnson Sweeney organized “African Negro Art” which included 600 examples of Dogon-painted masks, Baoulé ivory and bracelets, and Congolese seats and spoons. It was one of the most popular exhibits of MoMA’s first decade and toured the United States.

Why were they in MoMA and not an ethnography or anthropology (or worst of all, natural history) museum? Because, according to Sweeney, these ritual objects are indeed modern art – indeed the best modern art of the age. “As a sculptural tradition in the last century,” Sweeney proclaimed, “it had no rivals.”

Yet if MoMA could transform these objects—particularly looted bronze plaques from Benin that the curators borrowed from German ethnographic museums—into “modern” sculptures, the anonymous Africans who made them certainly did not become “modern artists.” Even in the 1980s, with the museum’s notorious “primitivism” in 20th-century art, the African masks and statues that stood alongside Gauguin and Picasso were stripped of their historical, legal, and religious significance, without even one indication of when they were made. It was not until Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor brought his comprehensive exhibition “The Short Century” to MoMA PS1 in 2002 that living African artists entered the museum, known by name and on an equal footing with their Western colleagues.

One of the artists in “The Short Century” was Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014), an Ivory Coast artist who celebrated universal citizenship and African history in countless small-scale drawings as well as manuscripts written in one of his writing systems of his own elaboration . More than 1,000 of those drawings are now on view in Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound, a major new exhibition that offers audiences a decades-long glimpse into an expansive, hard-edged artist who viewed writing and drawing as congruent parts of one world. comprehensive knowledge system.

The exhibition celebrates a significant gift to the museum – and more about the dynamics of it in just a minute – of a suite of Bouabré’s drawings, the “Alphabet Bété” (1991), cataloging his life project of a writing system native to West Africa, but for the globe applicable. She and the other works here were put together by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, a Nigerian curator who joined the museum in 2019. Identity essentialism comes as a breath of fresh air.

Bouabré was born in a small village in western Ivory Coast, inhabited by the Bété people. At 18 he joined the colonial navy and was posted to Dakar, then the capital of French West Africa. He stayed there after the war, entered the colonial administration – and then on March 11, 1948 he experienced a transcendental vision. Heaven opened; seven suns danced around a central star; and Bouabré was inspired to adopt a new name (Cheik Nadro, “the Revealer”) and to devote his life to the expression of heavenly knowledge.

This divine spark has remained the starting point of the Bouabré myth ever since European and American institutions began exhibiting his drawings in the late 1980s. At MoMA, eight small drawings he made in 1991 each depict a colored sun surrounded by dozens of spikes that looks eerily like a coronavirus to a 2020’s eye. But unlike other ‘outsider’ modernists who claimed divine inspiration (e.g. the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint), Bouabré certainly did not infuse his art with messages from the spiritual realm.

The vision was more like a trigger, an impulse to look outward rather than inward. And for the rest of his life, Bouabré pursued a systematic approach to cataloging and disseminating knowledge of this world and the afterlife, first in writing and then as an artist.

He first did this by inventing a 401-character Bété alphabet. (Technically, it’s not an alphabet, but a syllable; most characters express a common consonant and vowel, similar to the hiragana and katakana of written Japanese.) Each character is a stylized representation of a phonetically related aspect of Bété’s daily life, reduced in a few hits. The sound beu is a basket with two handles; bhh are two disembodied feet. The character for comes from a man felling a tree. GB is two men wrestling.

He published the syllabary in 1958 and used it in handwritten manuscripts, both anthropological and spiritual. Later, in “Alphabet Bété,” he spelled out the ancestry of each character in his preferred medium, colored pencil, on playing-card-sized tablets. Bouabré’s drawings of flies and snakes, drums and vessels, arranged here in Western alphabetical order, demonstrate a holistic nature and a conceptual skill that is all too often denied to “outsider art”. They are captivating, although I would have appreciated English translations of the illustrated words. To the non-Bété speaker, these drawings may appear hermetic, but Bouabré saw them as a means of communication that could extend across the world.

The “Alphabet Bété” sequence underscores a greater productive tension in Bouabré’s art between drawing and writing, between creation and communication, between the rational and the spiritual. (Most of Bouabré’s small drawings have French captions written in the Latin alphabet.)

In the series “Musée du Visage Africain” (“Museum of the African Face”) images of scarifications and tattoos appear surrounded by French descriptions of walled African cities or marriage and funeral rites. Later sequences celebrate democracy and women’s rights with a single drawing for each of the world’s 200 or so countries: the women’s dresses and the ballot boxes are in the shape of national flags, while the French captions proclaim that “democracy is the science of equality”. (I felt a faint pang at the blue-and-yellow ballot box, Bouabré’s little ode to Ukrainian self-determination.) His use of written French affirms that Bouabré never understood his art, let alone his Bété syllabary, as a private language. I see him less as an “outsider” artist like Henry Darger or Joseph Yoakum (the subject of a recent exhibition at MoMA) and more as an artist-writer in the vein of William Blake or Xu Bing.

This is only MoMA’s second solo exhibition featuring a black artist from Africa; the first, in 2018, showed the fantastic city models by Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez. Like Kingelez, Bouabré was not trained as a visual artist. Like Kingelez, he used cardboard and bright colors to envision utopias of global harmony. Like Kingelez, he first attracted Western attention at the 1989 Paris exhibition Magiciens de la Terre – the first major attempt to put Western and non-Western artists on an equal footing, although there were African, Asian and Australian participants (as opposed to the Europeans). ) almost entirely self-taught. And like Kingelez, Bouabré has been added to MoMA’s holdings thanks to Italian collector Jean Pigozzi, who began building his impressive collection of African art, said to be the largest in the world, after seeing Magiciens.

Bouabré and Kingelez should both be here! But not all African artists are self-taught, and I would like to ask why, almost a century after African Negro Art, it is self-taught rather than professional artists who are most welcome when MoMA turns its attention to the continent. Just for comparison, in the last six years alone, the Art Institute of Chicago has hosted exhibitions by South African sculptor and performance artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, Mozambican painter Malangatana Ngwenya, Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, South African photographer Jo Ractliffe, the Burkinabe photographer Ibrahima Sanlé Sory and a major exhibition of anti-apartheid poster design. (Promising South African textile artist Igshaan Adams is opening an exhibition there this week.)

It doesn’t bother Bouabré or the curators of this exhibition to say that I’m waiting for a MoMA retrospective for African artists like this one. One of the most moving objects in the 2019 relaunch of this museum’s collection was a prison notebook by Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi. He is one of the leading figures of Sudanese modernism, a professor at the College of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum, who combined calligraphy with modern painting in a career that spanned Africa, Europe and the Middle East. He and Bouabré, each in their own way, brought African aesthetics into the world.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World unleashed
Until August 13 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, The African artist and writer who mapped new worlds

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