Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, the first Ivorian artist to have a survey at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, was born in 1923 in Zépréguhé, Côte d’Ivoire. Yet on March 11, 1948, as if by some miracle, he was reborn—Bouabré had a mystical vision on the way to his clerical job at the General Security Directorate in Dakar, Senegal. Of this experience, he wrote, “Since the sky opened to my eyes and the seven colored suns described a circle of beauty around their ‘Mother-Sun,’ I am the one that must from now on be called ‘Cheik Nadro,’ the Revealer.” Following this astonishing event, Bouabré experienced an urgent need to make sense of the natural world, his immediate surroundings, and the history of his people, the Bété, until his death in 2014.
Hildegard von Bingen had a similar encounter with the divine 807 years earlier. In 1141, at the age of forty-two, the German Benedictine abbess and polymath received an instruction from God to write down what she saw and heard. She took about a decade to pen her first theological text, Scivias (1141–51), which describes twenty-six of her religious visions. Bouabré’s diligent recording resulted in the 325-page Le livre des lois divines révélés dans l’Ordre des persécutés par le révélateur Cheik-Nadro, fils de Dalo Gbeuly (The Book of Divine Laws Revealed in the Order of the Persecuted by the Revealer Cheik-Nadro, Son of Dalo-Gbeuly), 1945–63. This encyclopedic manuscript—on view here with nine more of his books—contains his first artworks, including a symbolic sketch of the vibrant suns he prophetically observed. He would revisit those harbingers later in Vision Divine Du 11 Mars 1948 (Divine Vision from March 11, 1948), 1991, one of the first works viewers encountered at MoMA, comprising eight pulsating orbs of prickly light made with ballpoint pen and colored pencil, each one on a six-by-four-inch sheet of recycled card stock. For more than five decades, Bouabré used commonplace materials to produce a unique iconography, somewhat reminiscent of the tarot, often inscribing in French handwritten comments and titles along the periphery of each card. (One could this past summer have taken in the breadth of his art, from his earliest works, at MoMA, to some of his late-career pieces, which were on display in a satellite exhibition at New York’s Ethan Cohen Gallery.)
In his catalogue essay for the show, MoMA curator Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi notes that the artist/mystic may have been influenced by his “exposure to ethnographic illustrations” published by the Institut Français d’Afrique Noire (French Institute of Black Africa, or IFAN). The organization was a product of French colonial rule, and it was where Bouabré worked as a researcher beginning in 1958—the same year the French West Africa federation dissolved and Côte d’Ivoire became an autonomous republic. What impelled Bouabré’s art? His vision, his day job, or both?
In the 1950s, while still working at IFAN, Bouabré set out to create a syllabary for the Bété language, and between 1990 and 1991 he produced an illustrated version of it, the series “Alphabet Bété.” Made up of 449 hypnotic drawings—depicting everything from ordinary objects and animals (spears, snakes, snails) to renderings of murder, fishing, and dancing—each image correlates to a single Bété monosyllable. As the heart of the show, the magical “Alphabet Bété,” which spanned two long walls in a tight, orderly grid, underscored how the effervescent repetition of Bouabré’s handwriting and his unpretentious drawing style came together to form something new, magnificent, and otherworldly. In the center of the gallery, a group of touch screens offered visitors the chance to hear the artist pronounce each syllable and to “write” words using the syllabary. This dynamic element further highlighted how sound is crucial to understanding the “Alphabet Bété,” and how the work was ultimately a way for Bouabré to spread Bété knowledge around the globe. One hopes MoMA will put this extraordinary digital platform online—I imagine the artist, like a true evangelist, would have wanted this particular aspect of his labors to be seen and heard by everyone in the world.