Africa scenery

The Day – The MoMA is finally interested in great African artists

Images are a form of knowledge, and knowledge, they say, is power. We’re used to the idea that the European masterpieces hanging in the Louvre or the giant abstract paintings on display in corporate lobbies radiate cultural authority. But what if the images in question are simple maps, diagrams, or—as in the remarkable work of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré—rudimentary approximations of things seen and known, drawn in ballpoint pen and pencil? of color on index cards or cheap cardboard?

“Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound”, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York until August 13, presents more than a thousand of these small colored drawings, all in white frames, through a series of large galleries in a unparalleled display. have seen. Hosted by curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi with Erica DiBenedetto, the show is both overwhelming and refreshing – an incitement to laughter, fascination and philosophical reflection. And this is only the second exhibition at MoMA by a black artist from Africa.

Bouabré (1923-2014) was born in a Bété village near Daloa, the main town in west-central Côte d’Ivoire. He was one of the first Ivorians to be educated by the French colonial government, and he turned to art after having a vision in 1948. Forty years later, he came up with a definition of art which washes the mind like cool, silky water soaking a heat-red face. “Art is a skill,” he said. “Art is the search, the re-search and the discovery of a sublime innocence.”

Bouabré’s drawings feature handwritten descriptions (in French) that wind around the rectilinear borders of each image. He uses them, as he puts it, “to explain what I’ve drawn,” in the belief that “writing is what immortalizes. Writing struggles against forgetting.

Western culture often pits images and words against each other. But we know that Egyptian hieroglyphs and the first Chinese writings come from the same source of wonder, from the same desire to know. Bouabré’s career has been devoted to the fusion of the two (he once said that he aspired to the “sacred chairs” of Pablo Picasso and Victor Hugo). In the process, he established an art form that, in his own words, “sharpens the love of life”.

I have known and loved Bouabré’s work for a long time, but I have never seen so many of his drawings together. I was introduced to his work by an Australian gallery owner, Ray Hughes, a friend of André Magnin, the curator who made Bouabré famous. Magnin included Bouabré in Magiciens de la Terre, a groundbreaking 1989 exhibition in Paris, and Hughes took me to meet the curator in his Paris office in the early 2000s.

The merits of the “Magicians of the Earth”, which placed 50 non-Western artists (mostly untrained) on the same level as 50 Western artists (mostly trained), are still debated. But such debates can be academically frustrating, bolstered as they usually are by ideologies about what the world should look like – but it isn’t. It’s probably best to acknowledge the show’s undoubted impact and embrace the specific visions and life stories of the many wonderful artists it discovered.

Bouabré, immersed in the customs of his village, Zepreguhe, learned the cultural taboos from his mother and family elders. He did not complete his primary education, but as his family moved he attended different schools and learned to read and write in French. After serving in the French West African Navy during World War II, he ended up working in the French colonial administration.

With his knowledge of French and a burgeoning interest in ethnography (particularly the culture of his own Bété people), Bouabré worked as a translator, informant and researcher for the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire for a period, the 1950s , which saw the eight colonies of West Africa preparing for independence.

A key encounter took place when Bouabré attended lectures in Dakar, Senegal, on the African origins of Egyptian civilization. The lectures were delivered by Senegalese scholar Cheikh Anta Diop, who stressed the need for Africans to develop modern writing systems rooted in ancient African culture, including Egyptian hieroglyphics.

Bouabre was impressed. He sought to apply Diop’s advice to a famous collection of pebbles of various shapes and textures from his own region. Known as the Bekora Stones, the pebbles are said to have supernatural powers. Bouabré became convinced that they were the remnants of an old writing system and he wanted to use them as the basis for a new alphabet, or syllabary.

By 1956 his focus had shifted away from the pebbles, but he was working on a related project – the development of a Bété syllabary that methodically transformed speech into simple pictographs and then into text. He made this project, which he called “Alphabet Bété”, a work of art in the early 1990s, and it is this work, comprising no less than 449 drawings, which opens the MoMA exhibition.

“Alphabet Bété” was Bouabré’s attempt to preserve and expand knowledge of the Bété culture. Pictograms include birds, animals, musical instruments, tools, hand signals, people performing various tasks, and allusions to proverbs and taboos. The drawings are rudimentary (they are often just shapes), and the allusions are in most cases impossible for a foreigner to decipher. But that doesn’t matter. The project as a whole, in its ambition and its underlying premise, is remarkable.

“Alphabet Bété” quickly caught the attention of the founder of the French Institute of Black Africa, the French naturalist Théodore Monod. Monod’s interest gives Bouabré the credibility he seeks. (Bouabré later marveled that, considering himself “of the LOWEST cultural level” and “having no degree from the Sorbonne”, he had never imagined that he would be baptized “”erudite”, this name glorious which cradles in a celestial manner the soul of each person whom it adorns.”)

Even as he was working on “Alphabet Bété”, Bouabré was diversifying. He cataloged aspects of neighboring cultures – not just Bété. He founded a short-lived religious sect, “The Order of the Persecuted”, and spent 18 years on a 325-page instruction guide for religion, complete with illustrations.

His interest in the combination of language and pictographs grew when he discovered, in the early 1970s, the Akan gold weights, a pre-colonial system of cast bronze and copper objects used to weigh the dust of ‘gold. Combining geometric patterns with stylized representations of animals and humans, the weights allude to Akan proverbs. Bouabré reveled in their way of distilling complex oral traditions and, in 1989-90, produced his own series of 42 drawings based on Akan gold weights.

Bouabré pursued various taxonomic projects, and these make up the rest of the exhibit – the first ambitious survey of his work in North America. The drawings that make up these projects all have roughly the same format as “Alphabet Bété”, but they address increasingly universal and ambitious themes – from “Civilization Bété” (27 drawings) to “Readings of signs observed on oranges” (86 drawings), “Museum of the African face” (162 drawings), “Tribute to the women of the world” (200 drawings) and “Democracy is the science of equality” (182 drawings).

The exhibition, made possible thanks to a donation of African art from the collector Jean Pigozzi and loans from Magnin, also includes several manuscripts (including the aforementioned guide to the religion of Bouabré).

There is something hypnotic and incantatory in this exhibition. What stuck in my mind after seeing him was not just Bouabré’s curiosity and intelligence, his dedication, his sly wit. It was his worldview, which combined open-mindedness with an almost Platonic faith in the idea that the various manifestations of culture could not be merely ephemeral and arbitrary, but enduring, nurturing and joyful. A revealing sight.