The exhibition pays Ivory Coast’s most significant 20th-century artist long-overdue appreciation and manifests his importance within art history, writes Sabo Kpade.
The prodigious output of Fédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923–2014) and its consistent sociopolitical and cultural concerns long since established his reputation as an artist of national or international importance. Yet reservations about his unsophistication, perceived or real, dogged his long career. The simplicity of his coloured drawings, the quotidian objects that were often his subjects, and the cheap cardboard on which he worked supported this persistent view of Bouaré’s art.
In addition, the Ivorian artist’s project, which combined artistic verve with anthropological mappings, received little institutional attention in the United States. His numerous solo and group exhibitions were mostly held across Europe and in his country, Ivory Coast. From the 1990s onwards, he was a familiar figure in key surveys of African art, as well as international exhibitions such as documenta, the Venice Biennale, and Gwangju Biennale.
World Unbound, Bouabré’s first retrospective in North America, is an attempt to reassess and reposition the Ivorian artist as a major figure of twentieth-century African art.
On view until August 14 at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, the retrospective is organized by Nigerian-born curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. Nzewi’s appointment as curator in MoMA’s painting and sculpture department in 2019 coincided with the gift of forty-five works of contemporary art by Jean Pigozzi, a French-born Italian collector and heir to the Simca automobile company. One key work in the collection was Boaubré’s Alphabet Bété (1990–91), a pictographic alphabet table created for his Béte ethnic group in Ivory Coast.
“The purpose of World Unbound is to shine a critical light on how significant his work is,” says Nzewi, “so that the fullness of Bouabré is represented within art history.” To this end, the artist’s simplified sophistication as a draughtsman is prioritized, as is the epistemological control he exercised over his unique world creations. This is part of MoMA’s drive to expand the dominant narrative of twentieth- and twenty-first century art, the curator says. “It’s also important for me to ensure that when we’re bringing in those voices, that we are representing them on Africa’s terms,” adds Nzewi.
Spanning five decades, this wide survey includes some of the artist’s earliest drawings (Seed of Life, 1977) and some of his last works (Democracy is the Science of Equality, 2010–11). His thematic scope was wide-ranging: tribal scarification patterns (Museum of African Face, 1991–97); a tribute to womanhood (Homage to the Women of the World, 2007); ancient African measuring systems (Akan Weights for Weighing Gold, 1989–90); and natural occurring patterns of birth and decay (Reading the Signs Revealed on Oranges, 1998–2008).
Each of the two galleries which make up World Unbound is anchored by a central work in Boaubré’s oeuvre. Alphabet Bété (1990–91) is a writing system he invented in order to transcribe into text the oral knowledge system of Bété, his ethnic group. The “artwork version” on display is a sprawling set of 449 drawings on small rectangular pieces of cardboard which depict a variety of images, including human anatomy, farming implements, and food produce, each of which is paired with a Bété syllabary. In the second gallery is Knowledge of the World (1987–2008), a set of thirty drawings for which Bouabré condensed ideas and beliefs about autonomy and civil liberties, among other subjects. The product of a twenty-one-year gestation period, this work is presented as representative of the artist’s life project of documenting and translating the material world and ideological formulations using his singular artistic idiom.
One of Nzewi’s strategies is to display Bouabré’s work in thematic groupings which ground it in Bété ontology, so that the artist’s individual projections of universalism are magnified. If this were done in western Europe, where familiarity with Bouabré’s art is better established, it might seem uninventive or not daring enough. But as an introduction to a US viewership, the neat, chronological groupings helpfully examine and explain the Ivorian belief systems and the milieu in which he produced his art.
Nzewi and his team at MoMA have chosen to demonstrate the “fullness” of Boaubré’s art through the creation of Digital Bété, an interactive installation which invites visitors to the gallery to create words and sentences in English, using the characters of Alphabet Bété. A QR Code is provided and once accessed, users can make selections helped by pronunciations in Bouabré’s own voice. A two-point lecture on the development of writing systems is subtly created by the twinning of Digital Bété and several of Bouabré’s handwritten manuscripts from the 1960s and 1970s, displayed in glass cases. Most enjoyable is the privileged look the visitor is afforded at the tentative beginnings of the artist’s unique world creation.
In World Unbound, Boaubré’s larger concerns about knowledge production and cultural transmission and, by extension, the essence of life itself are emphasized. The show reveals an artist who was broadly misrepresented and therefore misappreciated. Now that the broad scope of his career is substantially mapped out, Bouabré’s singular achievement can be fully recognized.
Sabo Kpade is a culture writer from London.