West African painter Ouattara has achieved an international reputation for works that combine African and Western themes, symbols, and materials. Incorporating found objects, ritual elements, and artifacts from popular culture, his paintings express the need for balance between technology and spirituality. “My vision,” he stated in an interview in the catalog West African Artists at the Venice Biennale, “is not based only on a country or a continent…. Even though I localize it to make it understood better, it’s wider than that. It refers to the cosmos.”
Ouattara was born Ouattara Watts in 1957 in Abidjan, a modern multicultural city that is the capital of Ivory Coast. His father was trained as a Western surgeon but also practiced traditional African healing, and these traditions were central to the young artist’s upbringing. The family spoke both French and the local language, Bambara; they also practiced a mix of various religions including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and indigenous religions. As he explained to the catalog interviewer, Thomas McEvilley, “We tried everything, we believed in everything. That’s voodoo. If you try Catholicism or Protestantism by itself in Africa it causes problems. So you mix them all with African traditional religion…. My father was a shaman whose practice was based on a religion with the widest possible scope.”
Though Ouattara attended formal schools from the age of six, his first education was the initiation school, or spirit school. This spiritual initiation, he told McEvilley, began at age seven. “The spiritual school permits you to understand the world,” he explained. “You are allowed a vision that is cosmic rather than a nationalistic or village-oriented one.” His spiritual education included rituals and symbolic objects, such as the bullroarer that Ouattara still uses in his work. Even today, he noted, he still begins his work with a spiritual ceremony.
Indeed, Ouattara’s art and his spirituality cannot be separated. His talent, he explained, was first recognized at his initiation ceremony when he created images used in the ritual. He loved to draw, and made works that he described to McEvilley as “very bizarre, very strange drawings, very mysterious, close to surrealism.” With little art instruction at his French school, the boy pursued his talent at home, teaching himself from the African images around him and from the bits of Western popular culture—such as advertisements and cars—to which the city exposed him.
At age sixteen Ouattara, whose family expected him to complete his education and become a doctor, dropped out of school to focus on his art. His father disapproved, but let the young man continue with his paintings. During this period Ouattara also discovered books at Abidjan’s French Cultural Center that introduced him to the work of such Western artists as Picasso. At age nineteen the young artist went to Paris, attracted by the city’s rich artistic history and by the fact that Picasso and his group lived there.
At a Glance…
Career : Painter 198Gs-.
Addresses : Agent —Gagosian Gallery, 980 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10021.
In Paris Ouattara studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He also went to museums to see the actual paintings whose reproductions in books had first interested him. He has cited Picasso, Miro, Brancusi, and Duchamp as particular influences on his own work from this time. Ouattara’s early years in Paris were difficult. Though he worked steadily he was reluctant to show his work because he felt that it wasn’t yet ready. “I needed to make a synthesis of everything I had learned in Africa and everything that I was learning in the West,” he told McEvilley. “I had to assimilate it all.” It took nine years before the artist had his first gallery show. The exhibit was widely reviewed, and Ouattara sold every piece. From then on, interest in his work grew.
In 1988 Ouattara met artist Jean-Michel Basquiat at the latter’s exhibition in Paris. Basquiat asked to visit Ouattara’s studio and was so impressed by what he saw that he bought the whole series of paintings, which he then showed to art dealers in New York City. At Basquiat’s invitation Ouattara went to New York, where he had a group show in 1988 and a one-man show the following year. Since 1989 Ouattara has lived and worked in New York, but he also maintains homes in Paris and Abidjan.
Critics have found much to admire and debate in Ouattara’s work. Many have noted the narrative elements in his pieces, which often include written words and printed material. As a writer in St. James Guide to Black Artists observed, “Words in Arabic, German, English, French, and other languages cut swaths in open fields of blue, yellow, and red.” Found objects and symbolic artifacts, often of wood or metal, are also often attached to the surface of a work, adding complexity to its story. Indeed, according to the St. James Guide, Ouattara has described his works as “personal and spiritual documents filled with inscriptions for the world to discern.” In an on-line article critic Christian Rattemeyer calls the paintings “messengers between the diverse cultures and societies of [the artist’s] experience.”
Ouattara often makes strong political references in his work. The painting “Nkroumah, Berlin, 1885,” for example, bases its title on both the conference where European powers debated the division of Africa among them, and on Kwame Nkrouma, the first president of the first nation in Africa to achieve post-colonial independence that later became Ghana. “Dark Star” presents a skeleton drummer against a background of hundreds of handprints, footprints, and prints from Nike sneakers—a symbol of capitalism. “Untitled,” as associate curator Dana Self observes in an exhibit catalog from Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, can be seen as “a commentary on consumer culture and Africa’s long and troubled history of slavery.” As Self points out, the figures in the painting and their sack of coffee beans indicate colonial exploitation, but the fact that the coffee is labeled “naturally decaffeinated” suggests a more contemporary circumstance in which colonization “through economic dominance and penury is as destructive as slavery.”
According to New York Times critic Holland Cotter, Ouattara’s work grapples with the major question facing African art today: the conflict between traditional and modern approaches. “In the West,” Cotter wrote, “‘African’ and ‘modern’ were mutually exclusive terms from the start. Modern meant movement, change, cities, technology, cultural adulthood. Africa meant stasis, timelessness, tribes, magic, and childlike naivete.” To be authentic, in this view, African art had to be tribal, exotic. Yet modern African artists have refused to be limited by this view. Ouattara, for one, creates paintings that, as Cotter described them, “couch archaic-looking personal symbols in a suave modern style.” In the view of New York Times critic Roberta Smith, Ouattara’s works reveal both his African roots and more modernist “buoyant abstractions.”
Ouattara emphasizes that his work does not posit spirituality only in Africa or technology only in the West. He sees spirituality as well as modernism in both worlds. But he does believe that spirituality is necessary to help humankind manage technology for good instead of destruction. In this sense, he believes, he is carrying on the healing traditions of his father and his native culture. As he told McEvilley, “When you talk about freedom, art is the liberator.”
St. James Guide to Black Artists, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale, Museum of African Art, 1992.
New York Times, February 17, 2002; May 10, 2002.
“Ouattara,” Culturebase, www.culturebase.net (January 6, 2004).
“Ouattara,” Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, www.kemperart.org/exhibits/ (January 6, 2004).
—E. M. Shostak
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