Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was born in a small village in French West Africa, a federation of eight French colonial territories that existed from 1895 to 1960. At the break of World War II, he was conscripted to the French Navy and sent to the federation’s capital, Dakar. He lived in Dakar for 10 years, working as a clerk for the Police Department. On 11 March 1948 he experienced his first mystical vision, followed by several others, which inspired him to believe in his calling as a prophet and his obligation to establish a religion. He called himself Cheikh Nadro, meaning “he who does not forget,” and became immersed in what was to become his life’s work: inventing the script to preserve the oral tradition of his people, the Bétés. He developed a 448-sign Bété syllabary, and although it was meant for the Bété language it is in fact a universal pictogram script that could be used for any language.
In 1953 Bouabré returned to his village and married according to tribal tradition, and in 1958 moved to Abidjan, where he continued to work as a civil servant. In the 1970s he began making drawings that deviated from the syllabary project, but maintained the basic structure of the alphabet: postcard-size papers, drawings using ballpoint pens and colored pencils, images framed by texts, usually in French. The series “Signs Observed on Oranges” or “Signs Observed on Kola Nuts” reflect the spiritual, mystical aspect of Bouabré’s work: he believed that divine revelation could be identified anywhere, in the most marginal and neutral locations. The signs that appear on orange peel or on kola nuts are abstract, and the way they hover over the small paper space indeed bestow them with a magical dimension. The series “Knowledge of the World” is composed of figurative images, encompassing the encyclopedic span of Bouabré’s interests: politics, religion, mythologies, geography, the human soul. The small, modest format does not display the scope of the work and the ambition at its heart: a cosmologic perception of the world, in which the tiniest details receive the same attention as the bigger stories.
Bouabré’s works were shown at the “Magiciens de la terre” [Magicians of the World] exhibition in 1989 in Paris, as well as in Outsider Art exhibitions and international contemporary art exhibitions. In 2015 he participated in the central Venice Biennale exhibition, and exhibited in the Ivory Coast pavilion, the country’s first time at the Biennale.
1923 Zéprégüé, Ivory Coast
Lived and worked in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, died in 2014