African art has had its place at the Museum of Modern Art since its inception – but not the African art you might think. In 1935, when the museum was tucked away in a townhouse on West 53rd Street, curator James Johnson Sweeney curated “African Negro Art,” the 600 specimens of which included painted Dogon masks, ivory and Baoulé bracelets and Congolese seats and spoons. It was one of the most popular exhibits of MoMA’s first decade and toured the United States.
Why were they at MoMA, and not at some ethnography or anthropology (or, worst of all, natural history) museum? Because, Sweeney argued, these ritual objects were in fact modern art – the best modern art of the time, in fact. “As a sculptural tradition of the last century”, Sweeney proclaimed, “it had no rival”.
Yet while MoMA was able to transform these objects – notably the looted Beninese bronze plaques, which curators borrowed from German ethnographic museums – into “modern” sculptures, the anonymous Africans who made them certainly did not become “artists.” modern”. Even in the 1980s, with the museum’s famous “‘primitivism’ in 20th-century art”, the African masks and statues that stood alongside Gauguin and Picasso were purged of historical, legal and religious significance, without even indicating when they were made. . It was not until 2002, when Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor presented his extensive exhibition “The Short Century” at MoMA PS1, that living African artists entered the museum, household names and on equal footing. with their Western counterparts.
One of the artists in “Le siècle court” was Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014), an Ivorian artist who celebrated universal citizenship and African history in countless small-scale drawings, as well as manuscripts composed in a writing system of his own design. More than 1,000 of these drawings are now on display in “Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound,” a major new exhibit that offers audiences a decades-long view of an expansive and persistent artist who viewed writing and drawing as congruent parts of an extended world-system of knowledge.
The exhibition celebrates a major gift to the museum – and more on the dynamics of it in a minute – of a sequence of drawings by Bouabré, “l’Alphabet Bété” (1991), which lists his life’s project of a Western writing system. Africa but applicable for the globe. They and the other works here were assembled by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, a Nigerian curator who joined the museum in 2019. The exhibition is considered thorough, unabashedly cross-cultural and deeply humanistic, which in these depressed days digital-identity essentialism comes like a breath of fresh air.
Bouabré was born in a small village inhabited by the Bété people, in the west of contemporary Côte d’Ivoire. At 18, he enlisted in the colonial navy and was assigned to Dakar, then the capital of French West Africa. He stayed there after the war, entered the colonial administration — then, on March 11, 1948, he saw a transcendental vision. The sky has opened; seven suns danced around a central star; and Bouabré was inspired to adopt a new name (Cheik Nadro, “the Revealer”) and devote his life to the expression of celestial knowledge.
This divine spark has remained at the origin of the Bouabré myth since European and American institutions began to exhibit his drawings in the late 1980s. At MoMA, eight small drawings he made in 1991 each represent a sun colorful surrounded by dozens of spikes, eerily resembling a 2020s eye like coronavirus. However, unlike other “foreign” modernists who claimed divine inspiration (the Swedish painter Hilma af Klint, for example), Bouabré certainly did not convey messages from the spiritual realm in his art.
The vision felt more like a trigger, an urge to look outward rather than inward. And for the rest of his life, first in writing and then in art, Bouabré would take a systematic approach to cataloging and circulating knowledge of this world and worlds beyond.
He did this first by inventing a 401-character bété alphabet. (It’s technically not an alphabet but a syllabary; most characters express a conjoined consonant and vowel, similar to the hiragana and katakana of written Japanese.) Each character is a stylized representation of a phonetically related aspect of life Bété’s daily life, reduced to a few strokes. The sound beautiful is a basket with two handles; bhe is two disembodied feet. The character for comes from a man cutting down a tree. gba it’s two men fighting.
He published the syllabary in 1958 and used it in both anthropological and spiritual handwritten manuscripts. Later, in “Alphabet Bété”, he would make explicit each character’s derivation in their preferred medium of colored pencil on playing card-sized boards. Arranged here in Western alphabetical order, Bouabré’s drawings of flies and snakes, drums and vessels, display an integrity and conceptual sense that ‘art brut’ is too often denied. They are captivating, although I would have appreciated the English translations of the words illustrated. For the non-Bete speaker, these drawings may seem hermetic, but Bouabré saw them as a means of communication that could spread across the world.
The “Alphabet Bété” sequence highlights a broader productive tension in Bouabré’s art between drawing and writing, between creation and communication, between rational and spiritual. (Most of Bouabré’s small drawings are framed with legends in French, written with the Roman alphabet.)
In the “Musée du Visage Africain” series, images of scarifications and tattoos appear surrounded by French descriptions of fortified African cities or marriage and funeral rites. Late sequences celebrate democracy and women’s rights with a single design for each of the world’s nearly 200 countries: women’s dresses and ballot boxes take the form of national flags, while French captions proclaim that “democracy is the science of equality”. (I felt a little twinge at the blue and yellow urn, Bouabré’s little ode to Ukrainian self-determination.) His use of written French reaffirms that Bouabré never conceived his art, or even his Bété syllabary, as a private language. . I consider him less as an “outsider” artist like Henry Darger or Joseph Yoakum (the subject of a recent exhibition at MoMA) than as an artist-writer like William Blake or Xu Bing.
This is only MoMA’s second solo investigation of a black artist from Africa; the first, in 2018, presented the fantastic city models of the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez. Like Kingelez, Bouabré did not receive training as a visual artist. Like Kingelez, he uses cardboard and bright colors to imagine utopias of global harmony. Like Kingelez, he first caught the attention of Westerners during the 1989 Parisian exhibition “Magiciens de la Terre” – the first major attempt to put Western and non-Western artists on an equal footing, even if the African, Asian and Australian participants were (unlike the Europeans) almost entirely self-taught. And like Kingelez, Bouabré entered the MoMA collections thanks to the Italian collector Jean Pigozzi, who began to build his impressive collection of African art, reputedly the largest in the world, after seeing “magicians”.
Bouabré and Kingelez should both be there! But not all African artists are self-taught, and I want to ask why, nearly a century after “African Negro Art”, it is self-taught artists rather than professionals who find the best reception when MoMA turns to the continent. For comparison: in the past six years alone, the Art Institute of Chicago has held exhibitions of South African sculptor and performance artist Kemang Wa Lehulere, Mozambican painter Malangatana Ngwenya, Kenyan photographer Mimi Cherono Ng’ ok, by South African photographer Jo Ractliffe, Burkinabe photographer Ibrahima Sanlé Sory, and a major exhibition of anti-apartheid poster design. (Up-and-coming South African textile artist Igshaan Adams opens an exhibition there this week.)
It’s not striking Bouabré, or the curators of this exhibition, to say that I expect a MoMA retrospective for African artists like these. One of the most moving objects in this museum’s new collection in 2019 was a prison notebook by Sudanese artist Ibrahim el-Salahi. He is one of the leading figures of Sudanese modernism, a professor at the College of Fine and Applied Arts in Khartoum, who married calligraphy to modern painting during a career spanning Africa, Europe and the Middle East. He and Bouabré, each in their own way, brought African aesthetics to the world.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: The Untied World
Until August 13 at the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd Street, Manhattan; 212-708-9400, moma.org.