By Yusra Arub
At the Cantor Arts Center, a new exhibition of West African art entitled “Alphabete: The World Through The Eyes of Frederic Bruly Bouabre,” opened on June 20 and runs through Feb. 25 of next year.
Bouabre employs his pictographic style to celebrate unity and invites his audience to appreciate his multi-cultural homeland. Setting African contemporary art like Bouabre’s alongside traditional African art at the Cantor Arts Center, Bouabre seeks to redefine our perception of misunderstood and stereotyped African culture.
In the Patricia S. Rebele Gallery, Bouabre’s colorful pictographs hang on the walls with soft light illuminating their colorful, child-like drawings of people or objects, bordered with descriptive phrases. A short video plays in the background, highlighting Bouabre’s motivations behind his vivid artwork, which abides by a common theme of divination. Though comprehensive and simple, the work seems to fearlessly hail a complex and nuanced culture.
One cannot help but question the inspiration that elicited such colorful and happy artwork in the 1950s, when a violent anti-colonial movement erupted in response to French colonialism. While his motherland drowned in debt and turmoil due to the oil crisis, and the worldwide AIDS virus further wiped out hundreds of young Africans, Bouabre unconventionally chooses to paint a playful picture of his society and culture.
While condescending card-sized photos of half-dressed African women circulated throughout Western media, Bouabre jabbs back by drawing his art in similarly sized pictographs.
Elizabeth Jacob, a Stanford historian of francophone West Africa, noted a pictograph showing an African warrior poking fun at such African stereotypes.
“[Although] the norm is Western … there are other ways to imagine universals,” Jacob said. “Looking at different images will evoke certain memories in people.”
Amanda Maples, the curator for the Bouabre exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center, said, “People think that masquerading is a ‘village thing’ or not contemporary. Yes, it is — it’s global, it’s cosmopolitan. Yet, it’s shuttled into an art gallery that has traditional art, just like contemporary African art is put into a contemporary art gallery and not one for African art.”
The West’s paternalistic nature emerges as it draws borders between traditional and contemporary African art.
“Contemporary artists don’t want to be pigeon-holed,” Maples said. “What I’m trying to do by juxtaposing these two forms of art is creating a physical binary that I want to take apart.”
Exhibiting the art at Stanford is a critical step to better understanding the implications of West African culture in our country. But these artists, in fact, don’t seek to be labelled as such. Maples recalled that the masqueraders preferred the name “builders, or kotu, designers, or carpenters of.”
James Trainor, a security guard at the Cantor Arts Center, emphasized this notion as he excitedly pointed at the ornately carved marble wall standing in the center of the museum. As a former technician, he explained that “art gets lost” in the face of modernization.
“All of this was made by hand,” he said.
It’s true. The physical blueprints used to create art are left in the dust.
The West reaps the fruits of modernization and penalizes the “primitive” nature of African society and culture. Maples said that the West has put a “bandaid on the African culture” by generalizing a society that has expressed itself through various art forms.
“Bouabre is calling the world to view Africa as more than primitive,” she said.
Ultimately, Bouabre “thinks we have common denominators,” according to Maples. “He is intentionally drawing [the art] simplistic…to show that there is so much more than the surface level.”
I felt a connection with a culture whose real beauty was always diminished due to Western depictions of Africa. Here was a tangible piece of art, a carefully thought out portrayal of a distinct culture that was shaped by the experiences and emotions of its own people. I walked out of the museum with a deeper appreciation for the simplistic predictability of the nature around me. Bouabre’s art invites people to experience the extraordinary in the ordinary for themselves.
Contact Yusra Arub at yusraarub19 ‘at’ mittymonarch.com