African Artist-Author of Mapping New Worlds

African art has had a place in the Museum of Modern Art since its early days—although it might not be the African art you might think. In 1935, when the museum settled in a townhouse on West 53rd Street, curator James Johnson Sweeney “African Negro Art” 600 examples included Dogon painted masks, Baoulé ivory and bracelets, and Congolese armchairs and spoons. It was one of the most popular exhibitions of MoMA’s first decade and toured the United States.

Why were they at MoMA and not an ethnography or anthropology museum (or worst of all, natural history)? That’s because Sweeney claimed these ritual objects were actually modern art—in fact, the finest modern art of the era. “As a sculptural tradition over the past century,” Sweeney declared, “it has had no rivals.”

Yet if MoMA were able to turn these objects into “modern” sculpture—especially the looted Benin bronze plaques that the curators borrowed from German ethnographic museums—the anonymous Africans who made them were certainly not “modern artists.” Even in the 1980s, the museum’s famous “20. ‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art” African masks and statues standing next to Gauguin and Picasso have been stripped of their historical, legal, and religious significance, with no indication of when they were made. Nigerian curator only in 2002 Okwui Enwezor brought his extensive exhibition “Short Century” According to MoMA PS1, living African artists would enter the museum on an equal footing with well-known names and their Western counterparts.

One of the artists in “The Short Century”, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014), an artist from Ivory Coast, celebrated universal citizenship and African history with numerous small-scale drawings as well as manuscripts written in his own writing system. own design. More than 1,000 of these drawings are now “Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: The Boundless World” is an important new show that offers viewers a decades-long view of a vast, enduring artist who sees writing and drawing as cohesive parts of a world-class information system.

The show celebrates Bouabré’s great gift to the museum of a series of drawings – and more about its dynamics – “Alphabet Bété” (1991), which catalogs a Western-appropriate writing system project of his life. Africa but valid for the world. It was put together by them and other works here. Ugochukwu-Smooth C. NzewiA Nigerian curator who joined the museum in 2019. The show is considered comprehensive, brazenly cross-cultural and deeply humanistic; this comes as a breath of fresh air in these depressing days of digital identity essentialism.

Bouabré was born in the western part of contemporary Ivory Coast, in a small village inhabited by the Bété people. He joined the colonial navy at the age of 18 and was sent to Dakar, the then capital of French West Africa. He stayed there after the war, entered colonial rule – and then had a transcendent vision on March 11, 1948. The sky opened; seven suns dancing around a central star; and Bouabré was inspired to adopt a new name (Cheik Nadro, “Explanatory”) and devote his life to the expression of celestial knowledge.

This divine spark has remained the starting point of the Bouabré myth since European and American institutions began displaying his drawings in the late 1980s. Each of his eight small drawings at MoMA in 1991 depicts a colorful sun with dozens of spikes staring mysteriously into the eyes of the 2020s, like a coronavirus. Yet unlike other “foreign” modernists who claimed to be divinely inspired (say, Swedish painter Hilma af Klint), Bouabré certainly did not channel any message from the spiritual realm into his art.

Vision was more like a trigger, an urge to look outward rather than inward. And for the rest of his life, first in writing, then in art, Bouabré would take a systematic approach to cataloging and circulating information about this world and the worlds beyond.

He did this by first inventing a 401-character Bété alphabet. (Technically it is a syllable, not an alphabet; most characters express a common consonant and vowel, similar to hiragana and katakana in written Japanese.) Each character is a stylized representation of a phonetically related aspect of Bété’s daily life. a few hits. Sound beu basket with two handles; bhe two disembodied feet. Character fo derived from a man who cuts a tree. GBA Two men are wrestling.

He published his syllabic program in 1958 and used it in both anthropological and spiritual manuscripts. Later, in “Alphabet Bété,” he would make it clear that each character was derived from his preferred colored pencil medium on boards the size of playing cards. Arranged here in Western alphabetical order, Bouabré’s drawings of flies and snakes, drums and vessels display a integrity and conceptual understanding that “foreign art” denies. They’re gripping, but I would have appreciated the English translations of the illustrated words. To a non-Bété speaker these drawings may seem hermetic, but Bouabré saw them as a method of communication that could spread throughout the world.

The series “Alphabet Bété” highlights a greater productive tension in Bouabré’s art between drawing and writing, creation and communication, rational and spiritual. (Many of Bouabré’s small drawings are surrounded by French subtitles in Roman script.)

In the series “Musée du Visage Africain” (“Museum of the African Face”), scraping and tattoo images are surrounded by French descriptions of walled African cities or marriage and burial rites. Late scenes celebrate democracy and women’s rights with a single draw for each of the world’s 200-odd countries: women’s dresses and ballot boxes take the form of national flags, while French subtitles proclaim “democracy is the science of equality.” (I felt a small pang at the blue-yellow ballot box, Bouabré’s little ode to Ukraine’s right to self-determination.) His use of written French reaffirms that Bouabré never thought of his art, or indeed of the Bété syllable, as a private language. . I think of him less as a “foreign” artist like Henry Darger. Joseph Yoakum (recently the subject of a MoMA show) More like an artist-writer in the style of William Blake or Xu Bing.

This is only MoMA’s second solo investigation of a Black artist from Africa; the first featured fantasy city models from the Congolese artist in 2018. Bodies Isek Kingelez. Like Kingelez, Bouabré was not well trained as an artist. Like Kingelez, he used cardboard and bright colors to imagine utopias of global harmony. Like Kingelez, he first came to the attention of the West at the 1989 Paris exhibition.The Sorcerers de la Terre” – the first major attempt to put Western and non-Western artists on equal footing, although African, Asian and Australian contributors (as opposed to Europeans) are almost entirely self-taught. And like Kingelez, Bouabré got his share in MoMA thanks to the Italian collector. Jean PigozziAfter seeing ‘Magiciens’, he set about building his impressive collection of African art, said to be the largest in the world.

Bouabré and Kingelez should be here! But not all African artists are autodidact, and I want to ask why, nearly a century after “African Negro Art,” when MoMA returned to the continent, it was self-taught rather than professional artists who found the most ready welcome. For comparison only: In the past six years alone, the Art Institute of Chicago has held exhibitions of the South African sculptor and performance artist. Kemang Wa Lehulerepainter from Mozambique Malangatana NgwenyaKenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’okSouth African photographer Jo RactliffeBurkinabe photographer Ibrahima Sanle Soryand an important show anti apartheid poster design. (promising South African textile artist Igshaan Adams is opening a show there this week.)

It is not a blow to Bouabré or the curators of this show to say that I am waiting for a MoMA retrospective for African artists like this one. One of the most moving objects of this museum Collection rehangs in 2019 It was a Sudanese artist’s prison notebook Ibrahim al-Salahi. He is a leading figure in Sudanese modernism, a professor at the Khartoum College of Fine and Applied Arts, combining calligraphy with modern painting in a career spanning Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. He and Bouabré, each in their own way, were bringing African aesthetics to the world.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: The Boundless World
Until August 13, Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400,

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