Artist Dossier: Frédéric Bruly Bouabré
by Ladun Ogidan
Artist, poet, researcher, and inventor Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, also known as Cheik Nadro, was born in 1923 in Zépréguhé, Ivory Coast, and was among the first Ivorians educated by the French colonial government. He died on January 28, 2014, in Abidjan.
On March 11, 1948, Bouabré had a vision, which influenced much of his later work and inspired him to take the name Cheik Nedro, meaning “He who does not forget.” According to Bouabré, “he witnessed the heavens part while the sun fractured seven times. The celestial objects that resulted formed a body, which he described as a Mother-Sun, encircled by seven smaller orbs.”
At the time, the Bété people did not have a writing system for their spoken language, so Bouabré invented a 448-letter, universal Bété syllabary as a way to borrow from, yet subvert, the medium of his French colonisers. With each character representing a syllable, as opposed to a letter or words and phrases, the Bété syllabary was used to transcribe the oral tradition of his people and describe the scenes in his artworks. From the 1970s until his death in 2014, he successfully created about 1,000 brightly coloured postcard-size illustrations that incorporate African writing systems, popular culture, scientific theories, and tongue-in-cheek humour. These cards form part of a larger body of work ‘Connaissance du Monde’ (World Knowledge) and were fashioned from ballpoint pens and crayons, with symbolic imagery surrounded by text. Their significance is situated in their unique divinatory messages, as well as their comments on life and history.
Bouabré first gained international recognition after his participation in the famous Les Magiciens de la Terre at the Grande halle de la Villette and the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. Curated by Jean-Hubert Martin and an international team including Aline Luque, Mark Francis, and André Magnin, the exhibition, a first of its kind, put 100 artists from five continents on an equal footing (50% Westerners and 50% non-Westerners). By identifying non-Westerners with their proper names alongside their Western counterparts, it marked a departure from traditional shows of non-Western work.
Several years after the first, three other Les Magiciens de la Terre exhibitions were organised; one in 2005, another in 2010 at London’s Tate Modern and a third in 2014 in the form of an archival exhibition accompanied by panel discussions. It took place at the original venue at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and represented a milestone in the development of the African market. However, despite this development, none of Bouabré’s works at the time fetched more than £5,000.
On October 7, 2014, Piasa offered at it’s African Stories – Art Contemporain Africain sale, a large-scale work Les liens sacrés du mariage, 2010-2011, composed of 150 drawings in coloured crayons and ball-point pens, 14.3 × 10.7cm and estimated between £78,480 – £94,176. Though the work was unsold, it implied a price of less than £550 for each drawing, which at the time sold for more than £785, to underscore the fact that while contemporary African art has yet to develop its true monetary value on the international art market, despite achieving global recognition.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s turnover from in 2018 was a total of £79,084 realised from the sale of 31 lots (48.3% bought-in, prints excluded), his highest achieving year so far.
His highest selling work Costumes, 2010, ballpoint pen, crayons de couleur/carton, 14.5 x 10.7cm was previously estimated between £26,663 -£35,551 and sold for £51,993 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Artcurial’s (S.V.V.), December 30, 2017 auction in Paris.
Other top selling lots include; Une cruelle humanité, 2010, ink, coloured pencils/card, 10.5 x 14cm, with a presale estimate between £10,000 and £15,000 but sold for £40,000 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale on March 28, 2018 in London; La sublime beauté des cinq continents, 2008, ink, coloured crayon/card, 19 x 13.5cm, previously estimated between £15,000 – £20,000 and sold for £18,750 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale on October 16, 2018 in London; Un nuage dans le ciel, 2010, ink, coloured pencils/card, 15 x 11.5cm, with presale estimates £7,000 – £10,000 and sold for £16,250 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary African Art sale on March 28, 2018 in London; and Joyeuse mere de race de coleur de l’arc-en-ciel, 2008, pencil, pen/card, 16 x 11cm, previously estimated between £12,000 – £18,000 but sold for £15,062 (buyer’s premium incl.) at Bonhams Africa Now sale on March 20, 2019 in London.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was one of the artists included in the Ivory Coast Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale (2013). His solo and group exhibitions include; Co-Naissance, Magnin-A, Paris (2018), Defying the Narrative: Contemporary Art from West and Southern Africa, Ever Gold [Projects], San Francisco (2018); Talent Show, Ethan Cohen, New York (2018); Evora Africa, Magnin-A (2018); Frédéric Bruly Bouabré & Serge Attukwei Clottey, Burning in Water, New York (2017); Dans Un Ciel Ensoleille, UTA Artist Space, Los Angeles (2017); Contemporary African Art Fair, New York (2015), Pompidou Centre, Paris (2014) and Tate Modern, London (2010). His work was shown at Palazzo Grassi in the exhibition The World Belongs to You (2011-12).
Today, several of Frédéric Bouabré’s drawings can also be found in The Contemporary African Art Collection (CAAC) of Meshac Gaba and L’appartement 22 collection.
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A Visual Alphabet for an Oral Language from the Ivory Coast, retrieved from https://hyperallergic.com on March 22, 2019
Alphabété: The World through the Eyes of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, retrieved from https://museum.stanford.edu on March 22, 2019
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