It takes someone quite particular to make 48 near-identical ballpoint pen drawings of ‘divine signs’ found on pieces of orange peel. When you consider that the same artist has also made 70 drawings of signs revealed by cola nuts, and a similar series about clouds, you could be forgiven for worrying a little. In fact, these works, currently on view in Tate Modern’s ‘Poetry and Dream’ section, are just the tip of the iceberg. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s oeuvre also includes a ‘museum’ of 162 African faces, 448 pictograms setting out an alphabet for recording his native Bété and other languages, a fantastic series depicting diplomats from every one of the world’s 193 countries, and ‘Publicités’, which covers such items as Ralph Lauren shoes and Starbucks coffee. Put together, these and other works form the impressively titled ‘Connaissance du Monde’ (‘Knowledge of the World’), the artist’s collected creative output, which he has been working on since 1977. Some might be intimidated by the scale of this project, but not Bouabré, who doggedly continues to jot things down that interest and amuse him, and all in an exceedingly orderly fashion. Presumably he will continue until he decides that he knows everything (or at least everything worth drawing about), or fate decides that he knows enough – whichever comes first.
Bouabré was born in the village of Zéprégüé, Côte d’Ivoire, in 1923, and worked as a civil servant for the French colonial authorities, later the Republic of Ivory Coast. His life was transformed on 11th March, 1948, when he had a transcendental experience: “From the moment when the heavens opened to my eyes and seven coloured suns drew a circle of beauty around their mother sun, I became Cheik Nadro, the man who never forgets…” This inability or refusal to forget anything has informed his artistic practice ever since, and his work reflects a need to catalogue objects, people, places, images, messages and even sounds, all using the same ballpoint pen/coloured pencil, postcard-sized format. It could appear obsessive, but there is something both enchanting and calming about Bouabré’s methodical yet utterly eccentric approach. As an artist, poet, philosopher and folklorist, he explores his immediate surroundings and the wider world with seemingly inexhaustible curiosity and often wry humour, offering up his findings as he goes along.
These days the artist lives and works in Abidjan, the fourth largest French-speaking city in the world, but most of his work has found its way out of Côte d’Ivoire and into the Geneva-based private collection of Italian businessman Jean Pigozzi. Bouabré’s rise to international fame came largely thanks to his inclusion in the high-profile 1989 show Magiciens de la Terre at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, which sparked solo and group exhibitions around the world for many of the featured artists. The kinds of criticisms levelled at that show – that it exoticised the artists and their work through a kind of neo-primitivist fixation with ‘authenticity’ and ‘mystical’ qualities – could equally be applied to some more recent displays featuring Bouabré’s work, and the Pigozzi collection more generally. According to art historian Olu Oguibe, artists like Bouabré are only popular in the West because ‘they satisfy the longing for fantasies, fetishes and shamanism.’ (If you’re happy to admit that that is indeed what you’re after, there’s still time to go and see this, which includes another Magiciens alumnus, Cyprien Tokoudagba).
For me, though, the presentation at Tate Modern speaks less of these sorts of stereotypes and more of a truly visionary individual, whose way of dealing with the world can intrigue and inspire regardless of the artist’s background or the viewer’s preconceptions. In the context of the wider ‘Poetry and Dream’ collection, sandwiched in between works from big-shot European Surrealists, Pigozzi’s loan takes on a whole new aspect. And lest the visitor nonetheless fall into a neo-primitivist trap, curator Kerryn Greenberg has also included a short film in a nearby cubbyhole, which includes interviews with the man himself and gives an insight into his creative process and universalist outlook, as well as his savvy attitude to the business of being an artist. Asked whether anybody can do it, Bouabré replies: “Yes, but you have to not be ashamed. Even if people laugh, you have to keep on dancing, and people will applaud you at the end.”
The show continues until 27th March.
Poetry and Dream, Room 4, Level Three, Tate Modern