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Inter-Culturality: More Complex Than It Appears

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s:World Unbound at MoMA

by Saul Ostrow, August 19, 2022

I saw the Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s exhibition World Unbound at MoMA, twice. On my first visit, I was armed only with my knowledge of the history and development of the nations that emerged from European partitioning of Africa, and the liberation struggles of the post-World War period. From catalogs and articles, I knew a bit about the contemporary art coming out of countries such as Nigeria, Congo, Kenya, etc. This scant knowledge was supplemented by the wall labels, a short documentary film on Bouabré and the interactive media installed in the gallery to explain the phonetics of his “Alphabet Bété”. These wall texts tend to steer away from the socio-political and cultural context in which Bouabré worked, and only mentions in passing how he came to the attention of the Western art world/market.


Each object, symbol, activity, or pictogram that Bouabré draws, occupies its own trading-card size piece of card. This standardization is a consequence of his having used card-stock taken from the packaging of a particular brand of women’s hair product. These drawings which number in the thousands when formally presented are individually framed, grouped by subject or theme, and hung in a grid formation. Most of Bouabré’s drawings are ringed with captions in French, written with the Roman alphabet. The earliest drawings tend to be irregular in size having been made using found scraps of cardboard — sets consisting of a smaller number of drawings which are often ganged together in a single frame. Beyond certain culturally specific references such as patterns of scarification, mythologies, etc. Bouabré’s work to the Western eye does not appear to be exotic in that it is not significantly tied to the symbolism and aesthetics of the peoples of the Republic of Côte d'Ivoire, who achieved their independence from France in 1960s. It is important to note here Bouabré was among the first generations of Ivorians to be educated by the French colonial government. At 18, he enlisted in the colonial navy and was posted to Dakar, then the capital of French West Africa. He stayed there after the war, entered the colonial administration. Hundreds of these small drawings were made while he was working as a clerk in various government offices.


The second time I went, I  walked through with MoMA’s curator Ugochukwu C. Nzewi (AKA Smooth) who organized World Unbound. Born and raised in Nigeria, Smooth was now leads the Africa group which is part of MoMA’s Contemporary and Modern Art Perspectives (C-MAP), an internal research and exchange initiative devoted to art in a global context. This walk through gave me the opportunity to discuss with him some of the deeper political, social and cultural issues that informed Bouabré’s project.

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MoMA’s curator Ugochukwu C. Nzewi  who organized World Unbound.

As I set about to write my account of this exhibition, all manner of doubts set in — Could I critically represent this work? – Would I, in these days of decolonization, merely end up appropriating Bouabré’s work to the Western cannon of cultural anthropology and semiotics? Or would I defer to its authority only because it’s non-Western. Likewise, would I miss the indigenous cultural and aesthetic references while ignoring the colonial influences? Then there is the question of the work’s local/ indigenous content as it was affected by the particular colonial conditions of French West Africa. And then there was the question of Modernism’s global cultural economy. As such I became aware of the still broader need to understand how Modernism circulated around the African continent and across the cultural and colonial divides between north- south and east-west Africa with their differing patterns of cultural development.


The reason I feel somewhat capable of writing about Bouabré is because after speaking with Smooth I have some understanding of the narrative that has been built up around Bouabré and his story, which begins on March 11, 1948 when he had a vision — an epiphany — that compels him to seek to record all things and knowledge. To this end he sets out to systematically catalog and circulate the knowledge of this world and those beyond. At first, he did this in writing, and then turned to making images. As such, all the drawings are part of the cycle, titled World Knowledge. Given this narrative, I do not consider him to be an artist neither folk, primitive, naïve, visionary or otherwise — but an anthropologist, in that they catalog differing aspects of his ever-expanding frame of references and his drawings are his field notes, and teaching tools. The fact they have come to be presented as art seemingly is the work of his handlers and promoters.


For those who do not know something of the history of the anti-imperialist wars of national liberation in Africa and the struggles for national identity, Bouabré’s drawings can be taken to be whimsical and charming. For those who have understanding of the various threads of thought that guide the social, political and cultural development of the divergent nations that occupy the continent of Africa, one may speculate that given Bouabré’s quest to record everything: everyday objects, various animals reproductive practices, folklore, religious and spiritual belief systems, popular culture and social issues — his work constitutes the complex process of modeling a new global master-narrative for those post-colonial peoples who are struggling to devise a modern cultural identity rooted in their traditions and colonial experiences but not bound by it. Consequently, we can look upon Bouabré’s work as a primer as to how the project of linking the past to the present may be undertaken.


World Unbound presents its audiences with is a sampling of the thematic subjects that Bouabré cataloged starting in the 1970s till his death in 2014. The books and 1000s of individual drawings were made using ballpoint pens, crayons and consist of imagery and symbols surrounded a unique divinatory message and comments on life and history. At the center of World Unbound is the recently acquired “Alphabet Bété” (1991), which consists of the drawing for the written language he designed using the phonics of the French alphabet for the Bété people, the ethnic group he belonged to. Most of the characters express a joint consonant and vowel and are portrayed on some 1,000 small cards. Bouabré would go on to use these characters to transcribe the oral tradition of his people. Subsequently, we must remember these drawings were meant to be a method of communication and a means of preserving the knowledge of the Bété people.

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The first thing that I held in mind when viewing Bouabré’s work was, I knew not to think of it as African art, because there is no such hegemonic practice outside of 19th Century anthropology and ethnography. The exhibition Magicians de la Terre in 1989, at the Center Pompidou, where Bouabré had his first international exposure  was another strong influence on how I understand  Bouabré’s work. That monumental exhibition was the first major attempt to put Western and non-Western artists on equal footing. This exhibition curated by Jean Hubert Martin,  had been organized in the wake of the tone deafness of the "Primitivism" show at MOMA. It was Martin’s intent to counter-act the  ethnocentricity of the contemporary art world as well as to respond to the 1931 show, L’Exposition Coloniale which had been organized to promote the economic and moral superiority of French colonialism, and the products its colonies. Yet even here, despite the best of intentions a bit of neo-colonial prejudice survived in that the African, Asian and Australian participants were almost entirely self-taught, unlike their Western counter-parts. The logic of this is not immediately apparent, perhaps Martin felt he was offering up a more authentic visions of a non-western modernism by avoiding those trained to be  “professional” artists.


For whatever reason Martin chose to represent non-western practices as those being of the self-taught artist, some 33 years since the Primitivism show and Magicians de la Terre, and 87 years since James Johnson Sweeney organized at MoMA’s “African Negro Art” in 1937, MoMA now brings us its second solo survey of a Black (male) artist from the African continent; the first, being the Congolese artist Bodys Isek Kingelez in 2018, who also had his Western debut in Magicians de la Terre. Ironically, neither were trained as a fine artist, both work with scrap cardboard and have a utopian, humanist message. Likewise, their use of the vernacular makes them accessible to Western audiences. Seemingly, from this not quite yet established logic, MoMA has a dilemma in terms of how non-western contemporary art might best be integrated into the narrative of their collection (and as such that of Modernism as a global trend). Such works as Bouabré’s does little to support Alfred Barr’s progressive and developmentally structured narrative of Modern art, which only recognizes “African (tribal) Art” for its aesthetics. Subsequently, to include much of the colonial and post-colonial art of non-western peoples — museums, historians, critics, and artists — need to adopt an anthropological methodology so they might recognize modernism is not a series of stylistic episodes dedicated to the deconstruction of art but is an ever-evolving exploration and expression of “Identity” in the age of industrialization, imperialism, and its after maths.



Saul Ostrow is an independent curator and critic. Since 1985, he has organized over 80 exhibitions in the US and abroad. His writings have appeared in art magazines, journals, catalogues, and books in the USA and Europe.  In 2010, he founded along with David Goodman and Edouard Prulehiere, the not-for-profit Critical Practices Inc. ( as a platform for critical conversation and cultural practices. His book Formal Matters (selected and revised) published by Elective Affinities will be launched Fall, 2022.  He served as Art Editor at Bomb Magazine, Co-Editor of Lusitania Press (1996-2004) and as Editor of the book series Critical Voices in Art, Theory and Culture (1996-2006) published by Routledge, London. (images courtesy of MoMA)

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