On ViewMuseum Of Modern Art
March 13 – August 13, 2022
On March 11, 1948, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923–2014) had a celestial vision which inspired him to become an artist. His visual record of those career origins is presented in World Unbound. He made eight postcard-sized images using ballpoint pen and colored pencil on cardboard showing the sun—a spiked sphere in various colors—with a caption recording that date. A self-taught artist born in Côte d’Ivoire, Bouabré learned to read and write French but never completed his primary education. But he did hear lectures by Cheikh Anta Diop, the pioneering African art historian. Bouabré also worked as researcher and translator for IFAN, a French African research institute.
Bouabré loved drawing. He said that he didn’t work from his imagination, but drew what delighted him. His delights included cloud formations; the natural markings on the surfaces of oranges, bananas, kola nuts, and leaves; numbering systems; and, more broadly, what he called “knowledge of the world.” He made four hundred forty-nine drawings for his Alphabet Bété (1990–91), named for the ethnic group to which he belonged; two hundred in Homage to the Women of the World (2007), drawings of women and national flags; and twenty-seven drawings from Civilization Bété (1988)—to name just three of his series of drawings on display. This, the first survey devoted to him in North America, also includes a number of his book-length manuscripts and a lively video showing him late in life.
For some decades Bouabré worked and showed in relative isolation, but then he met influential French curators and participation in Magiciens de la terre (1989), the renowned Centre Georges Pompidou exhibition, made him famous. The MoMA show includes hundreds of drawings, many of the small ones very densely hung, some with four rows top to bottom in one gallery, and five in another. It’s astonishing that he made so many, but this arrangement hardly encourages close focus on individual works. And his worldview, the system he used to organize his practice, is not easy to unpack. Some of Bouabré’s ideas, like making images for his language, make perfectly good sense: he thought that colonization of Africa was aided by the lack of written languages. And he founded a non-proselytizing religious sect, the Order of the Persecuted, which preached tolerance towards Christianity and Islam, as well as indigenous practices. But some of his other ideas, such as his desire to depict everything, sound like the inspired plans of a gifted naive outsider.
Judging from his images and the brief translations of his writings in the catalogue, Bouabré was an eminently sane, thoroughly happy person. Indeed, there is a marvelous deadpan quality to the twenty-one seed of life (1977) drawings showing the copulation of animals, bats, bugs, and humans. (Bouabré had four wives and innumerable children.) But these visual materials and the catalogue don’t tell us how to understand his achievement. What, I am asking, is his place in the story of contemporary art? Noting that Bouabré has previously been understood as a primitive contemporary of European modernists, the catalogue rejects that way of thinking. Reductive analysis, which reflects the limitations of one’s knowledge of an unfamiliar culture, is, I agree, a real problem. Looking at the layout for this show, with the long rows of small drawings, I immediately thought of Rosalind Krauss’s famous essay “Grids” (1978). The grid, she writes, “is what art looks like when it turns its back on nature.” But I wonder if Bouabré wanted his art to be displayed in this manner: on the back cover of the catalogue, he simply puts drawings seemingly at random on a working table. When he wrote, “art is searching, re-searching, and discovering sublime innocence,” he sounds like some European modernists. But perhaps he came to this important idea by himself. What were the sources, if any, of Bouabré’s way of art making? Did he read or see something that inspired his 1948 vision, or was that conception his own creation? This show leaves these important questions unanswered.
The difficulties that our art world has when dealing with race are all too evident here. (I don’t exclude myself from this criticism.) MoMA deserves great praise for assembling this exhibition of a deeply fascinating, highly original artist. But the catalogue, which includes only one brief interpretative essay, lets him down. A Picasso commentary need not explain that he was a Cubist who lived in France. Here, however, we really need some interpretative framework. I understand the desire to overcome the older way of thinking, the binary, contrived opposition contrasting the self-conscious Western artist to his non-Western peer. But the curator doesn’t offer a constructive alternative analysis. And since the bibliography in the catalogue reveals that Bouabré has been much written about, I infer that providing such a discussion was not impossible. But it would be ungracious now to complain. In 1984, as the catalogue reports, the American critic Thomas McEvilley ferociously criticized MoMA’s Primitivism show in a review that inspired a famous exchange with the MoMA curators. Now, by recognizing the pitfalls of reductive accounts of non-Western artists, that museum shows an admirable self-critical capacity. And that is a remarkable, most admirable achievement.