Frédéric Bruly Bouabré

Museum of African Faces

1995–7

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Not on display

Artist
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré 1923–2014
Medium
78 drawings, graphite and ink on cardboard
Dimensions
Unconfirmed, each: 150 × 110 mm
Collection
Tate
Acquisition
Purchased with funds provided by the Africa Acquisitions Committee 2014
Reference
T14010

Summary

Museum of African Faces 1995–7 consists of a series of seventy-eight small drawings in coloured pencil on cardboard by the Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Divided into thirty-nine pairs, the drawings are a transcription by the artist from a notebook of the same title. The notebook was produced in 1975 and includes eighty-six pairs of drawings. Of these original pairs only thirty-nine were reworked in 1995–7; within these, thirty-five are different pairs and four were repeated twice (nos. 7, 8, 10 and 32). This is the third version of this open series that the artist has produced since 1978. The first two editions contained a total of 172 drawings.

Regarding the title of the series, the artist has commented:

I define ‘Museum’ as the temple in which we keep the monuments that help us to understand history. ‘Faces’ are figures, races, surfaces, and any external aspects of the body. And, the adjective ‘African’ describes everything that happens, that is present, our time, the traditional African characters and the native African genius.
(Artist’s statement in the original sketchbook of the series, Museum of African Faces 1975, unpublished. Translated by Tate Curator Elvira Dyangani Ose.)

Although every composition is unique – with the exception of the four twice-executed pairs – there is a recurrent pattern. The front of each card presents a centred image within a drawn inner frame, thin and coloured, which divides the central motif – tattoos and scarifications – from the text written in French that surrounds it. In general, the frames are primarily blue, but some are lilac and green. Typically, embedded in those frames there is a small yellow sun, drawn by the artist to indicate the display orientation. One image represents a motif scarified on the skin of a drawn face, whilst its pair shows only the motif against a plain background. The text makes reference to the content or subject of the image and the pairing usually emphasises that meaning. For instance, in a card showing a face scarification one can read in French: ‘A citizen from a tribe active and wide-awake. Dated 18-5-1996’; whilst its pair reads: ‘The representation of a tribe active and wide-awake: 6 inhabitants on sight. Dated 19-5-1996’. In general, the back of the card contains further information on the text in French and/or Beté, the artist’s own linguistic creation.

A self-taught artist, Bruly Bouabré created in 1948 the Alphabet Beté, an extraordinary series of more than 440 ideograms, that would allow him to preserve the culture of his community, the Beté, while representing and transmitting all the knowledge of the world. That moment marks the beginning of a career devoted to manifesting visually his research on philosophy, traditional art, poetry, storytelling and aesthetics. The result is a distinctive and complex body of work, initially collected in numerous notebooks, which subsequently served as sketchbooks for the colour postcards series he initiated in the late 1970s, when he became a full-time artist, gathered under encyclopaedic titles such as Knowledge of the World 1978–8, Museum of African Faces 1978–88, Great Individuals 1987–8 and The Bété Mythology and Civilisation 1978–88.

Bruly Bouabré’s work is strongly connected to his early experience as a government official in the Ivorian branch of the IFAN (Institut Fondamental d’Afrique Noire, in English ‘Institute of Basic Research of Sub-Saharan Africa’), an institution founded by historian Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, which aims to preserve the traditional knowledge and material culture of African societies. His work is deeply rooted in local traditions, and yet concerned with a global context. His practice is also informed by an archival approach as, for instance, is the photography of Nigerian J.D. Okhai Ojeikere (born 1930).

His work is a call for all individuals to contribute to the world that the artist strives for. Historian Yaya Savané has described how ‘the existence of a universal kinship, the unity of the world, and the necessity of cultural crossbreeding constitute the foundation of the artistic project Frédéric Bruly Bouabré holds dear’ (Yaya Savané, ‘Frédéric Bruly Bouabré and his Artistic Project’, in Dia Center for the Arts 1995, p.79). Bruly Bouabré has commented that his aim is:

To create a system, a world, in which the discoveries of life and its wonders may be reproduced, and especially where the prodigious possibilities of the human imagination can be divined and together travel the paths of the mind, and find us confronted with happy coincidences, or present at the meeting of two parallel lines after an eternity on each other.
(In Dia Center for the Arts 1995, p.79.)

Further reading
Lynne Cooke, Andre Magnin, Alighiero e Boetti, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: Worlds Envisioned, exhibition catalogue, Dia Center for the Arts, New York, 6 October 1994–25 June 1995.
Andre Magnin, Yaya Savané and Denis Escudier, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Paris 2013.
Lucy Steeds, ‘“Magiciens de la Terre” and the Development of Transnational Project-Based Curating’, in Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, London; Academy of Fine Arts Vienna; Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College; and Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven 2013.

Elvira Dyangani Ose
September 2013

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