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  • on 29.05.2014
  • at 07:00 PM
  • by Kevin Hind

Here Africa/3: Interview with Frédéric Bruly Bouabré 0

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was born in Zéprégühé (Ivory Coast) in 1919 (although his officially recorded birthdate is 1923) and died in Abidjan on January 28, 2014. Bruly Bouabré’s first writing dates back to 1940, but it was not until 1970 that he began transposing his art on postcard-sized pieces of cardboard — a technique that he kept unchanged until he died.

His formula was as follows: a sketch in biro, coloured in with pencil, encircled with a caption where he captures a thought, provides some context or simply explains the drawing. For many years, Bruly Bouabré put the script in inverted commas, with a red dot at the beginning of the text, and a picture of a sun at the top of the card to indicate the direction that should be followed in reading the card. Each artwork is authenticated on the back by the words “author’s signature” followed by his actual signature, the date and pic- ture of a star. The cards, in their thousands, can each be clas- sified according to themes, including tradition, eroticism, poli- tics, current affairs, family, love, religion, art, literature and so on. Sometimes clusters of cards form a complete fable, each card representing a chapter of the story. They constitute an infinite, visual art creation, a universal encyclopaedia bringing together the “knowledge of the world ” which, by definition, can never be completed. Although his approach was never meant to follow a strict protocol, it was nevertheless ambitious and methodical, characteristic of the unique work of a “seeker” 1.

“Nadro” — a Bête nickname given to Bruly Bouabré by his mother, meaning “the one who does not forget”, indeed seeks to reflect someone who observes, reads, listens and archives both traditions and the contemporary world. He used to say that everything was there, around him, that he only had to re- cord the results of his “searches” in what the artist referred to as his “bricolés” 2 revealing a protean artist who was at the same time a drawer, thinker, philosopher and poet.

Bruly Bouabré is not an “African artist” as such, he is a contemporary artist. He is contemporary because, without regard to aesthetics, he arrives at what is essential with a minimum of means and forces us to question the world around us irrespective of where we come from. He is contemporary because in the constant exchange between his work and the world, he captures the essence of his time. He is contemporary because beyond the borders of Ivory Coast, he has created works which defy time and space.

Bruly Bouabré is also a poet, not only because of his manuscripts or the texts he adds to his drawings, but also because of the poetic strength that radiates from his work. Only recently, the students of the School of Applied Arts which I am a Dean at worked on a theme entitled “Make poetry”. They were required to produce a piece of “poetic” work in one of the fields they studied at the school. They had read Tarkos’s texts taken from La poésie est une intelligence 3 : “Poetry is human thought (…). A poet trains his thinking. He caresses representations. A poet masters untamed intelligence. (…); a poet thinks; he sits down, he watches, he moves, he emerges from thought. Then he remains silent. He has an inner smile for the emerging thought. He reaches heaven. He shapes the world”. Bruly Bouabré is a perfect example of this concept of “Make poetry”. He clearly stands out as a contemporary artist and poet who shapes the world.

At the time I started writing this article, Bruly Bouabré was still living and working in Yopougon, a popular district of Abidjan, where I had the pleasure of meeting him on August 12, 2009. He was surrounded by his enormous “African fam- ily”. I stress this point because he considered that family was not limited to blood relations, he believed that we are all next of kin. A few days before he died, knowing that I was about to write about how we met for HERE AFRICA, he sent me a wonderful mot dessiné through my daughter Aurélie who lives in Abidjan. This card reads: “Universal kinship? This is mankind in its unlimited kinship beyond the colour of its skin. Patrick Fuchs is my relative through the feeling of love that I have for him and that he has for me” 4.

Our meeting from which grew a long-lasting friendship resulted from a happy deliberate chance encounter. I was vis- iting Ivory Coast to meet Noboru Fernandes de Abreu who was on a mission for the United Nations. Since the 2005 Af- rica Remix exhibition at the Centre Pompidou, then the 52nd Venice Biennale and the 2007 Kassel’s Documenta, we had decided to concentrate our collection on contemporary Af- rican artists.

The day after I arrived, and since I was determined to meet Bruly Bouabré, I started my tour of Abidjan’s art gal- leries, which proved unsuccessful. At the most trendy of the galleries, I was advised to go to Agnès B in Paris. This did not alter my determination so I decided to pay a visit to the Musée des Civilisations de Côte d’Ivoire which was supposed to be having an exhibition of Bruly Bouabré’s work. I visit the museum but am unable to see any drawing by Bouabré. I then ask a guide where this artist’s work might be. After a “palaver”, he suggests I meet the curator. In a 1960 postcolonial office reminding one of a photograph taken by Guy Tillim 5, and af- ter a further hour of palavering, Monsieur Tagro takes me to Bruly Bouabré’s place in Yopougon.

On arriving at his house, which had a large blue star paint- ed on the front wall, I was made to wait for a long time on the terrace. His children come out one after the other, and I met Olivier, Paul, Sylvestre, then his grandson Chrisoste and his nephew Landry. I am not sure what to say and how to behave.

They give me a drink of water and we chat while waiting for Bruly Bouabré who finally appears, wrapped in a red robe, accompanied by his wife, Geneviève Tapé.

Right from the start, his soft and kind eyes, those of a wise man, struck me. He tells me to sit down and calls me his “son”, which surprises me and makes me feel uneasy. Then very soon, I am completely overwhelmed by his genuine humanity. I can feel that I am living through a unique moment in my life, yet my collector’s instinct reminds me that I want to see some pieces of his work. Growing impatient, I dare ask to be shown some drawings. Bruly Bouabré draws attention to my lack of patience and says with jest: “In Switzerland, you have watches. Here, in Africa, we have plenty of time”. I am ashamed, but very soon, he returns to his urbane self and asks his children to bring a bag full of drawings which his beautiful long nailed hands pull out, one by one, while he comments on them. The gestures and the voice have a rare sensual quality. Silences punctuate his explanations, as if to allow time for taking in the fragments of the world that he unveils for me. I experience one of the most poetic moments in my life. When the evening comes, I say I wish to buy some drawings. He is surprised by my request: he does not bother with the sales, this is his son’s job. I later try to deal with them in the Maquis 6 while drink- ing Flag 7. To no avail. Still excited on returning to Geneva, I tell Noboru about my meeting with Bruly Bouabré, then I call Bénédicte Montant and Marco Colucci. Like me, both of them collect artwork by contemporary African artists and they would like to obtain a caption along with a few drawings. Several attempts and massive amounts of Flag later, I finally return to Switzerland with our desired Bruly Bouabré pieces. I have no sooner arrived than I get a phone call from Olivier Bruly Bouabré: he wants to know how my journey home went and gives me his father’s regards along with the regards of his entire family… It is the start of a long spell of kinship, never to be interrupted since.

The following October, I receive an invitation for Yopou- gon. I arrive there with Swiss chocolates, presents for the young children and Caran d’Ache coloured pencils. This time, the entire “parenté 8” is expecting my visit, Geneviève is all dressed up and we sit on the terrace, waiting for Bruly to return from one of his walks. He greets me very warmly and shows me a few bits of paper he picked up in the street: one of them is a coffee-stain which makes him think of Africa (some time later, I buy the drawing entitled: “Sur ma table à manger, l’Afrique” 9). While we are talking, his eyes are set on a cloud 10, he observes, he “searches” art, he scribbles on bits of paper and hands them to his grand-children for later work. I have brought a few books with me, including La Haute diplomatie 11 and he signs it for me after having written: “My very dear Patrick, may God long protect our kinship”. I tell him how much I like this series of drawings and he offers to write a list of countries in order to do them again for me. Then we take a few family pictures which I will send to him once back home. He will later make drawings 12 from them. He shows me his “bricolés” and comments upon them. There are several human “kinship necklaces” 13 which I will later have the oppor- tunity to acquire: they display most clearly his vision of human relations and “universal kinship”. The afternoon is spent in the Maquis: for the second time, no business is concluded on the terrace of the Yopougon family house and I have to see the children at Noboru’s to buy some drawings.

Back in Switzerland, my friends are contacted and the extended family expands with Alexandre de Weck, Isabelle Naville, Nathalie Grange, Abir Oreibi, Martine Maye and Enrique Ochoa. In 2010, my daughter leaves for Abidjan on a mission for the UN. As thoughtful as ever, Bruly draws and signs Bon séjour à Abidjan 14 for her as a welcome gift. On one of my visits to him, just as I am about to leave, he gives me the drawing of an envelope 15 intended to stand for the diffi- culties met in corresponding between Switzerland and Ivory Coast. On this drawing, he has written: “My most honourable son Patrick Fuchs, I hope to see you again in Zéprégüé”. I write to him through his son or my daughter, we exchange books, presents, I buy some of his drawings, so do some of my friends or relatives: Alain and Claude Joye, François Ba- bel, Yael Lévy, Christine and Georges Robinson, Olivier Val- lat, Valérie Fuchs and Adelina von Fürstenberg now expand Bruly’s parenté. He systematically enquired about each and every one of them, then he wrote and signed texts for them, calling them “Son”, “Daughter”, “My dear relative”. He drew “Happy Birthday ! !” 16 for most of us and also drew pictures of saints 17 for our Saint days, etc. Just before Christmas, he asked my daughter to bring me a series of post-dated draw- ings intended to celebrate the birthdays-to-come of some of our “relatives”, a diptych to advertise for HERE AFRICA and a note on a card 18 drawn for Adelina von Fürstenberg which reads: “I have “collected” Europe spiritually, it is now Adelina von Fürstenberg’s turn to “collect” Africa” .

In the early morning of January 2014, I had a phone call from his children who informed me that “the old man was gone”. His entire parenté in Geneva is still mourning him. When Olivier asked me to be his son’s godfather, he called him Nadro Patrick Fuchs Bruly Bouabré: the first name was given to honour his own father. I then asked him to remind me of the meaning of Nadro and he explained that Bruly had given the term a new translation: unforgettable. Thanks to his work, the links he created in Switzerland and with all those who had the privilege of meeting him, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré will remain unforgettable, he will forever be remembered as “a purveyor of love and thoughts”, which is how Maurice Bandaman, Ivorian Minister of Culture and Francophonie, greeted him.

This radiant artist did not want to be mourned: this exhibition of 200 RIRES 19 at HERE AFRICA is a cheerful tribute which he would have appreciated.

It would be unthinkable not to devote the last words of this text to other members of Bruly Bouabré’s parenté: first to his master, Théodore Monod, who so ably illustrated Bruly Bouabré’s work in this quotation: “We all wish to break open the circle of thought and to never let it stagnate”; and then to the one who made it possible for us to discover Bruly Bouabré — his son, André Magnin, with whom the entire Geneva parenté 20 joins in saying, at the time Bruly Bouabré departs from this earthly world: “May the earth lay gently over him”.

The questions were sent to Frédéric Bruly Bouabré via Aurélie Fuchs at the end of December 2013 and the answers collected by Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s sons, Olivier and Noé, and by his grandson Moronou Eric just before his death on January 2014, in preparation for the short movie that ART for The World had planned to produce. Patrick Fuchs was supposed to go to Yopougon to interview Frédéric Bruly Bouabré with these questions.

You were kind enough to make the flyer for the HERE AFRICA exhibition. Our only require- ments had been that the words Ici l’Afrique, Genève and Monde should be written on it. you have produced a diptych with a hemisphere on each drawing where the world becomes prey to gigantic colored pencils. can you explain this choice?

I naturally thought of the colored pencils because I had been sent a box of colored pencils, a present from Adelina von Fürstenberg, along with her request for the flyer. Of course, it was not my first box of colored pencils. I often received similar beautiful metal boxes with quality pen- cils from Switzerland. As far as I am concerned, Switzerland is synonymous with its chocolate — which I regularly sample thanks to Patrick Fuchs — and its pencils. Of course, coloured pencils are what enables one to draw: thanks to them, Bruly has become famous.

Why a diptych? To show that even if Africa is not located on the same continent as Switzerland, it will be united to it in Geneva as shown by the drawing. By uniting the two draw- ings, Africa moves towards Geneva and unites with Swit- zerland. This exhibition is a parable for a world in which the north-south opposition becomes meaningless and human- kind is united thanks to Art and Geneva.

You have been invited to innumerable international exhibitions along with other prominent artists. When you showed your work for the first time in paris at the Magiciens de la Terre exhibition, 1989, you were one of the very few african artists to represent africa. now in Geneva, about twenty artists from different genera- tions representing about the same number of african countries will be exhibited. how do you feel about it? are you interested in the emergent art scene of con- temporary african art?

Indeed, I received an invitation to attend this event in Geneva. I am very honored to have been chosen among all the living artists and I am enchanted to be able to meet other younger artists thanks to their work. I am particularly inter- ested in young artists because I am interested in everything around me. I have taken a break from traveling, but I receive information about them from press cuttings or in catalogues sent to me.

When we met in yopougon in 2009, you very quick- ly called me “son”. lately, you wrote a few lines of which i am very proud: “universal kinship is about man in his extended family, regardless of the colour of your skin. patrick Fuchs is my next of kin through the love i feel for him, and the love he feels for me.” could you tell us more about how you conceive universal kinship?

We all drink the same water, the only true source of life. This is why you exist in me and I exist in you. White people have taught us that we are homonymous and the converse is true. We are all related.

When we informed you that Adelina von Fürsten- berg was planning to curate the exhibition HERE AFRICA, you sent me a note which my daughter Aurélie brought to me. it says: “i have “collected” Europe spiritually! it is now Adelina von Fürstenberg’s turn to “collect” Africa!” could you explain your use of the brackets and what “collecting” Europe means for you? is Bruly Bouabré a collector?

The inverted commas are there to emphasize an im- portant word. Here, the word “collect” is important. When I look around me, I collect information. I collect fish bones, the presence of the divine, slips of paper picked up in the street. I also collect stones, especially those from BEKORA in which I found my inspiration for the alphabet of West Af- rica. I already knew that Adelina von Fürstenberg collected Europe because I remember her with the late artist Alighi- ero Boetti and I am deeply honoured that she should organ- ize an exhibition about Africa. Bruly is a researcher seeker and a collector. I keep some treasures like my Jerusalem bell, which is a metal money box that no one else in the world possesses. When I want to extract the coins from it, its rattle is as deafening as the bells in Jerusalem. I also collect my own work : manuscripts and drawings. I like collecting books because before entering the pantheon of Picasso, my ambi- tion was to enter that of Victor Hugo. I buy books, but those which are most precious to me are those which are given to me as presents and which bear a signature and a dedica- tion. For instance, La légende de Domin et Zézê in which one may read “To my dearest Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, with all the admiration and respectful affection from his Swiss relative, Patrick Fuchs, Genève-Abidjan, October 22nd 2010” or the book Industries et cultures en Côte d’Ivoire inside which one may read “Sincerely dédicated to Frédéric Bouabré Bruly. B. Holas, March 3, 1966”.

For HERE AFRICA your large series entitled “la FBB liberté de rire s’impose à tout citoyen de chaque pays pour conduire son peuple vers le bien-être” will be shown. there will be about 200 drawings, one for each country represented at the united nations. Where did you find your inspiration for this project?

Laughter is universal just like thought and kinship. The world would be so much better if laughter or smiles prevailed. To laugh or to smile is not making fun, it is life from its most positive angle. Without the freedom to laugh, life becomes sad and loses its meaning! The countries in which laughter is forbidden are dictatorships. Art is also there to promote democracy in its own way, without resorting to war… And laughing makes one feel so good, doesn’t it.

Over the last few years, you created several large series such as “la haute diplomatie”, “voitures partout”, “Bon séjour”, “la main de dieu”, “les Femmes”, “les liens sacrés du mariage”, “les rires” , etc. each one is made of 100 to 200 countries. Why such large series?

Because I want to reach the universal… and numbers FBB attract people.

Before my first visit to ivory coast, i had bought a 1919. Pictogram of the Bété alphabet. How important is this alphabet in your life?

The alphabet is my treasure. It is what granted me the title of “savant”. The alphabet comes before the drawings.

What is “the knowledge of the world” for you?

Pursuing the knowledge of the world means making a note of, researching, and immortalizing existing things. Most people do not see how beautiful the world is around us. One should be able to see the least significant things: the sign of the divine in art on an orange peel, a banana or cola nuts, or looking at the shape of the clouds.

You have been invited to attend to the opening of HERE AFRICA in Geneva, but you no longer travel. One of your sons, Olivier, will represent you. What part does he and do your other children play in your art and your work?

My children, Olivier, Sylvestre, Noé and two of my grand-children, Moronou Eric and Chrisoste, have kept en- couraging me to work over the past few years. They prepare my working table, sharpen my colored pencils. They some- times help me put the colors in my drawings and meet the demands of the collectors and the art market. The creation proceeds by itself, but the work is organized and my children classify and store the drawings. They have known my work since they were born and I shall be very well represented by Olivier in Geneva.

Who are the people who mattered most in your life?

My mother, Drehounou Tagro, my late elder brother Gbeuly Lebatto and my dear wife, Geneviève Tapé.

Four years ago, you showed me the manuscript of  Livre des lois divines révélées dans l’ordre des persecutés and you told me that your greatest desire was to have it published. this has now been done, with the box-set recently released. What else would you wish for the circulation of your work?

I would like my alphabet to be taught in schools.

How old are you exactly?

My official birth date is 1923, but in fact I was born in 1919.

How do you relate to death ?

It is a necessary step. “Ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. I asked God to grant me 125 years of paradise. I have never been scared of death since the day I had this celestial vision on Thursday, March 11, 1948. Death is a crossing and those who have departed from this world can see each other, talk to each other, congratulate each other and be together as the living on earth. I do not want tears to be shed when I die… Glory to God alone!

By Patrick Fuchs
Dean of CFP Applied Arts, Geneva

The publication of this interview published on Here Africa’s catalogue is part of a partnership between Afronline and Art for the World, an NGO associated with the UNDPI (United Nations Department of Public Information). Its mission is to create, through the universal language of art a meaningful and enduring dialogue among diverse peoples, cultures, and world views in order to encourage tolerance and solidarity and to foster education as a human right.

From 6 May to 8 July, Art for The World assembles for the first time in Switzerland a unique collection of contemporary African art and performances including approximately 60 works of more than 26 interesting artists from the African continent. In partnership with the Swiss NGO, Afronline.org will publish opinions and interviews of the personalities involved in the exhibition.

More information on Here Africa

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