STANFORD, CA — On March 11, 1948, the Ivorian polymath Frédéric Bruly Bouabré had a vision. By his own telling, Bruly Bouabré witnessed the heavens part while the sun fractured seven times. The celestial objects that resulted formed a body, which he described as a Mother-Sun, encircled by seven smaller orbs.
His vision inspired him to make art and take the name Cheik Nedro, meaning “He who does not forget.” The name signaled the focus of his future creative endeavors: to preserve the culture of his people, the Bété, whose homeland in what is now Cote d’Ivoire was colonized and decimated by the French from the 1800s through the middle of the 20th century.
One way Bruly Bouabré preserved Bété culture was by recording Bété heritage and myths in crayon and ink drawings on postcard-sized pieces of paper. The Bété people did not have a writing system for their spoken language, so the artist created one and used it, along with French, to incorporate descriptions of these scenes within the composition. These drawings are the subject of Alphabété: The World Through the Eyes of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, now on view at the Cantor Arts Center on the campus of Stanford University.
Bruly Bouabré’s writing system was a 448-character syllabary; each character represents a syllable, as opposed to a letter or words and phrases. He hoped that Bété could become a universal writing system. In theory, syllabaries can transcribe any sound the human mouth can muster, making them a viable option for any culture.
The pieces on view at the Cantor express the deep connection that Bruly Bouabré felt to the world around him, the Bété world. Many of the drawings appear to be parts of series to which he repeatedly returned. Four of the cards depict the artist’s mother, Tagro Dréhounou, dressed in the flags of various nations. Another four comprise a series titled Man and the art of dressing well, each individual work featuring a uniquely dressed dapper dude. (One man has facial scars that Bruly Bouabré tenderly renders.) Fruit is another domestic motif that recurs regularly. Bananas, kola nuts, and oranges are portrayed and described as providential gifts.
The immediacy of these themes is offset by works addressing broad political and philosophical issues. For example, the piece, “Afghanistan! If eyelids were long, here is how human virtue or humiliation would tie them!” combines humor and disgust to dissect both the inevitability and futility of conflict. Another work, titled “The desire of man,” features a beautiful woman. Her hair decorated in baubles and her head and neck in precious jewels, she is surrounded by an aura and her expression evokes the Virgin Mary.
Aphabété celebrates an artist’s singular, loving vision. Cote d’Ivoire’s history, I would venture, is likely little known to most who happen upon this article, this exhibition, or this artist’s work (it was for this author). The story displayed on the gallery walls narrates the artist’s dearest concern, his people. As a story of tragedy and hope, it is universal — just as Bruly Bouabré hoped his syllabary might be.
Alphabété: The World Through the Eyes of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré continues at the Cantor Arts Center (328 Lomita Drive at Museum Way, Stanford, CA 94305) through March 2, 2019.