Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923-2014), Côte d'Ivoire

Zaceli and Zawounon

, 2006

12 x 8 in. (30.2 x 20 cm)


About this artist

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was a thinker, poet, encyclopaedist, creator, and artist. Born in Zéprégühé, in Côte d’Ivoire, Bouabré served in the French West African Navy and began his career as a government official in the colonial administration of French West Africa in Dakar, Senegal. In the late 1940s, he had a vision that transformed his life: he then called himself ‘Cheik Nadro the Revealer’ — meaning “The one who does not forget” — and dedicated his life to philosophical research into the state of Africa, and preserving the heritage of his people, the Bété. He worked as an informant and researcher to French ethnographers and anthropologists, collecting and archiving information about his native peoples and other West African communities. Searching for a way to preserve and transmit the knowledge of the Bété people and of the world, he invented a unique alphabet of 448 monosyllabic pictograms, an inventory of sounds that would allow to transcript all the languages in the world.

In the late 1970s, Bouabré began to draw on found cardboard, combining image and text. From the 1980s onwards, as the scope of his interests grew, he embarked on an all-encompassing project, drawing from observation almost daily. He created ongoing bodies of work that can be presented partially or as complete series.

Bouabré is celebrated for his untiring attempts to codify, archive, and share information that connects the human story. His singular devotion to drawing and his unwavering interest in taxonomy were remarkable, especially among African artists without academic training, but it was his approach to image and language, condensing oral culture into a dizzying multiplicity of visual forms and written annotations, that sets him apart.

‘Bouabré explained […]: "I do not work from my imagination. I observe, and what I see delights me. And so I want to imitate.” This imitation, despite Bouabré’s own declaration, was highly imaginative, yet meticulously controlled.’ (Kasfir, 2020, p. 188)

Bouabré is one of Africa’s best known and most celebrated 20th-century artists. With his participation in Magiciens de la Terre (Magicians of the Earth), Bouabré had his first international exhibition, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 1989. His work was later presented at Venice Biennale National Pavilion, Venice Biennale International Exhibition, Istanbul Biennial, and Gwangju Biennale. His artworks were also exhibited at Tate Modern, Palais de Tokyo and the Centre Pompidou, Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, and the Mori Art Museum in Tokyo. In 2022, MoMA organized a major museum survey of Bouabré’s work.

Clayton Schuster. “A Visual Alphabet for an Oral Language from the Ivory Coast.” In Hyperallergic, December 5, 2018.

Sidney Littlefield Kafir. Contemporary African Art. Thames & Hudson, London 2020.

Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound. MoMA, New York 2022.