Ouattara / MATRIX 163
April 25, 1994 - June 25, 1994
Download the exhibition brochure (PDF).
Ouattara has lived half his life in Africa and half in Europe and the United States. As a young man, he was initiated into the religion of the Senufo people who inhabit an area including northern Ivory Coast, southern Burkina Faso, and southern Mali. Ouattara traces the origins of his artistry to this initiation period when the elders, "saw that my mind was shamanic...in the direction of creation."1 Inspired by reproductions of works by Goya and Picasso that he saw in books at the embassy and consular libraries in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Ouattara traveled to Paris in 1977 to study art. Since that time he has absorbed further Western influences-perhaps most especially the works of Joseph Beuys, Julian Schnabel, Jackson Pollock, and Jean-Michel Basquiat.
Ouattara's paintings reflect not only the cosmopolitanism of his own life but, equally, a conception of the spirit that embraces the world and cosmos. Steeped in magic, his art expresses tenets of West African voudon, a relative of the more familiar West Indian voodoo. As Ouattara describes it, voudon derives from mingling of traditional African spiritual practices with other religions such as Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. "You are allowed a vision," explains Ouattara, "that is cosmic rather than a nationalistic or village-oriented one. Therefore you are the sun, the rain, the Mexican, the American, the Japanese, etc."2
His paintings reflect this synthetic approach in both form and content. They are amalgams of painted abstract surfaces, found objects, painted texts, and occasionally, photographic images. He combines Western religious symbols with images and forms derived from traditional Senufo rituals, while often including imagery-in the form of found photographs such as album covers, magazine clippings, etc.-that depict persons or incidents out of contemporary African, European, or American daily life. The ankh, a symbol of life, that occurs frequently in his paintings suggests the deep influence of ancient Egyptian civilization on sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, Ouattara explains that many years ago his own people, the Senufo, migrated from an area in the Sudan, just south of Egypt, bringing elements of ancient Egyptian culture with them.
For Ouattara the act of painting is itself a ritual act in which the artist attempts to conjure magic forces for the betterment of the world. He hopes to express a link between the ancient rites of his ancestors and today's modern, technological society. "We live in a totally technological world today," he said in a recent interview with Thomas McEvilley, "a world where if you push a button everybody can blow up. Before Hiroshima, they thought man was immortal, but after Hiroshima the world is mortal. I think that spirituality must permit people like us, who are in the grip of technology, to better appropriate and take over technology ...to give it a more humane quality."3
The compelling sense of timelessness in Ouattara's paintings derives not from an impulse to transcend the harsh realities of the everyday world, but rather from a profound sense of suspension between an actual past, present, and future. History is collapsed into a single moment, pregnant with mystery and possibility.
Ouattara was born in the Ivory Coast in 1957. He currently lives and works in New York City.
1 Interview with the author, March 10, 1994.
2 Thomas McEvilley, Fusion: West African Artists at the Venice Biennale (New York: The Museum for African Art, 1993), p. 72.
3 Ibid., p. 74.
MATRIX is supported in part by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the California Arts Council, Mrs. Paul L. Wattis, the University Art Museum Council MATRIX Endowment, Byron Meyer and Stanley M. Smith.
The Ouattra exhibition is part of the Shared Voices program of the Art and Film Collection Access Project.
Permanent Collection Exhibitions, Films, and Public Programs in the Art and Film Collection Access Project at the University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive are made possible through the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund Museum Collections Accessibility Initiative.