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2022-05-06

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré « L’alphabet de l’ouest africain »

MOMA, the Museum of Modern Art in NYC, has an exhibit of the work of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, Côte d’Ivoire, 1923–2014.

Born in 1923 in Zéprégühé in western Côte d’Ivoire, Bouabré started his career as a clerk and translator in the French colonial administration. On March 11, 1948, he experienced a transcendental vision that prompted him to seek divine truths in nature and to interpret his immediate and wider surroundings-first through writing and eventually through visual art. From the late 1970s until his death in 2014, he created hundreds of colorful drawings on postcard-size pieces of cardboard salvaged from his neighborhood in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire’s economic capital. Distinctive in style, these works feature animated figures and abstracted elements enclosed within hand-drawn frames, which themselves contain text describing the subject or content of the drawings. Bouabré once said that he used writing to explain what I’ve drawn…. Writing is what immortalizes.”

What bothers me about this is the impression it gives me that the amazing images that fill the first room and some of the second are primarily colorful drawings” with borders of explanatory writing. In other words they see him as making art.

The exhibit displayed several hundred postcard-sized images consisting of drawings surrounded by writing in the frame”. For example, this card labeled « BI »

At first, I thought this was simply an image by someone who rather fanatically drew whatever struck his fancy. Then I wandered over to one of the nearby computers and saw this eye-opening image of « BI »

Suddenly, without adequate help from the museum, it became clear that these images are mnemonic devices for learning Bruly’s extremely complex syllabic writing system.

I downloaded l’Alphabet de l’Ouest Africain (PDF) and on page 51 I found this:

The first section of « l’Alphabet »

The first section of « l’Alphabet » has a long piece of writing in French with Bruly’s syllabic representation above:

Notice how he even represents the liaison sounds of French by writing « () » and « (ZA) ». These symbols are easy to find in Bruly’s book:

The nice thing about a syllabic writing system is that you can represent so many languages with it. The downside is the large number of symbols needed to represent the many sounds of all the languages in West Africa, including French.

Here you can find more of his images.


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