Since The Magicians of the Earth, the Ivorian Frédéric Bruly Bouabré has become the essential African artist. Eight years after his death, his work is exhibited for the first time at MoMA. Echoing the New York exhibition, André Magnin, who had “discovered” Bouabré, pays homage to him with unpublished drawings in his gallery in Paris.
Some encounters go down in history. In 1988, looking for artists for the exhibition The Magicians of the Earth which will be a kind of fall from the wall for contemporary African artists, the art historian André Magnin met Frédéric Bruly Bouabré in Abidjan. At the time, no one really knew this artist whose work is currently exhibited for the first time in the United States. Magnin explains to us the unique side of the Ivorian artist who died in 2014, but is now celebrated worldwide. Maintenance.
RFI : You put Frédéric Bruly Bouabré on the international scene during the historical exhibition The Magicians of the Earth in 1989 at the Center Pompidou-Paris. Today, his work is celebrated for the first time at the prestigious Museum of Modern Arts (MoMA) in New York. What merit led this artist to the summit not only of contemporary African art, but of contemporary art in general ?
André Magnin : Before the death of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, we were able to publish, with Xavier Barral editions, four volumes on the artist. In this deluxe edition, he made a design called The giant touches the sun. This giant who touches the sun is Bruly Bouabré.
What is the genius of this giant based on? ?
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré had a divine vision on March 11, 1948. God appeared to him through the sun. At that time, he was in Dakar and worked at the direction of the French Institute of Black Africa (IFAN), created by Théodor Monod [grand scientifique et explorateur français, NDLR]. At that time, Bouabré was poor, he didn’t have a watch. When he goes to work in the morning, he, like many Africans, relies on the sun to know, down to the minute, what time it is. This March 11, 1948, Bouabré looks at the sun to know if it is not late and he saw what he calls ” a divine manifestation “. The sun explodes: there is a blue sun which comes out and surrounds a white sun, then appears a red sun, a green sun… the seven colors of the rainbow. Then, everything returns to the mother sun which is a black sun which explodes again to become a white sun again. It lasted a few minutes. He described it perfectly in his book divine law.
Since then, Brouabré has been called Cheikh Nadro (“ the one who does not forget “), the developer ?
Yes, and its mission is to archive the knowledge of the world, to pacify the world and to participate in the knowledge of the world. That’s what he did all his life. He was a particularly enlightened and luminous man. Since 1949, he has produced 130 manuscripts of anthropology, ethnology, poetry, tales, mathematics, philosophy, religion… All these 130 manuscripts make up his great work. Bouabré wanted to enter Victor Hugo’s pantheon, it was his obsession. He knew he had greatness, he knew his genius. He knew he had a divine mission and that he was going to spend his life pleasing God.
At the time, the Ivorian President Félix Houphouët-Boigny did not help writers. It helps singers, artists, but not writers. And as Bouabré wrote, he couldn’t make himself heard. In addition, he has scientists against him, because he disagrees with some academics. Bouabré holds his knowledge in his blood, his flesh, his tradition. The knowledge it transmits is traditional knowledge. For him, they are more powerful than academic knowledge. At the end of the 1970s, Bouabré, not becoming a writer in the “pantheon of Victor Hugo”, decided to enter the “pantheon of Picasso”. He therefore begins to do everything he has inventoried in his manuscripts to transpose onto small drawings. These little drawings are never “invented”, but “recorded”.
All his life, Bouabré collected all knowledge to make it a kind of encyclopedia of world knowledge to pacify the world, until the invention of his writing in the early 1950s which was published by Théodor Monod in 1957.
On the occasion of your exhibition We don’t count the stars, you show a set of drawings by Bouabré, some of which are unpublished. why today ?
This is the first time that I have decided to show all these drawings accumulated over 35 years alongside Bruly Bouabré… Most of them are drawings from my personal collection. I had never imagined parting with it, but I had to go, because, at the moment, there is an exhibition at the MoMA, and I have treasures that I entrusted, that he gave to me or that I bought. In my collection, I wanted to bring together all the fields of Bruly Bouabré’s knowledge. You have a series that touches on writing, another touches on scarifications, The Museum of African Faces, this is yet another scripture. There are divine scriptures on fruits, like oranges, kola nuts… For him, these are divine scriptures that man has forgotten. All of Bruly Bouabré’s work revolves around writing. Around the drawings, you systematically have writing.
His most famous work is the Bété alphabet. Why and for whom did he create this alphabet ?
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré is Bété. They don’t know the writing. He went to “the school of whites”, as he said. He went to primary school, he spoke French. The Bété have their own language and normally they do not speak French. Bouabré has therefore, from bété sounds, created a pictographic alphabet. These are pictograms. Each sound corresponds to an image. Bouabré starts from this image which he symbolizes to the maximum and which becomes a pictogram. The alphabet he invented in the early 1950s is made up of 447 pictograms and can be used to write all the languages of the world. Following his divine vision in 1948, his mission was to pacify the world. And for him, writing best cements ideas “.
For him, writing is peaceful. He invents a writing that everyone can use, the Germans, the English, the Russians… It’s a kind of alphabet that will pacify the world, because thanks to this alphabet, everyone will understand each other… Obviously, it’s a utopia, but Bouabré is a great utopian.
[Vidéo] Who still uses Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s “Alphabet bété”?
Bouabré died in 2014, aged 91. Did he succeed in transmitting this bété alphabet ? Today, who uses his writing ?
In 1957, in the bulletins of IFAN, Théodor Monot published his alphabet. Monot agrees that this is a real invention. It is probably one of the only personalities still alive that we know who invented an alphabet. In general, we do not know the inventors of the alphabets… The alphabet was published in 1957, then he taught it. When I went to Côte d’Ivoire, to Marcory, in his plot, on the edge of the sandy road next to his house, he always had a blackboard. Every day he taught his alphabet. I couldn’t tell you how many people can write with this alphabet, but I think about ten. He had dreamed that this alphabet would be used. He even sent this entire alphabet to a researcher in England. He learned English in a week and he made a handwritten letter with his entire alphabet so that English people could understand and write “in English” with his alphabet. He never stopped fighting for this alphabet to be known worldwide. He sought both glory and at the same time to pacify the world. He was an immense figure, of exceptional grandeur and beauty.
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What is the greatest misunderstanding that you encountered in relation to Bouabré’s work at the time of its “ discovery at the international level in 1989 ?
On the contrary, in 1989, the Ivory Coast discovers that they have a great artist who came to exhibit in Paris, at the Center Pompidou, at the exhibition of Earth Magicians. It has become a phenomenon. In the streets of Abidjan, there were advertisements of French and Ivorian mineral water brands with billboards of 4 meters by 3 meters with his face drinking water. At the time, suddenly, Bouabré was everywhere in the city of Abidjan. He had become an essential character. We were going to visit him, we tried to buy some drawings from him. He was much sought after.
Currently, his work is on display at MoMA, New York. You designed your exhibition in Paris also to echo this first major American exhibition. What discovery can we make in relation to this North American look at the work of Bouabré ?
The exhibition World Unbound (“A world without limits”) at the MoMA, produced by the curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, started from the gift of Jean Pigozzi for which I have built up the collection since The Magicians of the Earth in 1989, until 2009. Jean Pigozzi is the owner of 80% of the work of Bouabré, in particular of his complete alphabet. Mr. Pigozzi donated this alphabet. Smooth C. Nzewi didn’t do a retrospective, but he did a great show about writing. You have the Bété alphabet, the Museum of the African face, scarifications… Bouabré made an inventory of 180 scarifications. In Africa, scarification makes sense. It’s not a drawing, it’s an ID. It is a family that owns it. Through these scarifications, we can read the whole history of a family.
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The entire MoMA exhibit revolves around writing. The exhibition in Paris, We don’t count the stars, it is not only the writing, here you also have drawings of the knowledge of the world, that is, what he observes in the world. It can be clouds, a lion, a giraffe or a dead figure, and he picks it up. Bouabré does not invent anything. He notes everything he observes. The drawings observed on a cola nut, an orange, a melon or the black spots on the skin of a banana, for him, it is a divine writing. It is God who surfaces in nature. Everything is already there. Bouabré does not invent anything, he only brings together the knowledge of the world which is already there and which man no longer knows how to see.