Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: Self-Taught Encyclopaedist


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Author: 
Sarah Lombardi

In Dakar, on March 11th of the year 1948, the Ivorian creator Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (b. ca. 1923) had a revelation exhorting him to spread his knowledge of the world and of his people (the Bété) as widely as possible. To that end, he invented a ‘Bété alphabet’. (1) As often occurs among creators of Art Brut, it was an outside element that incited him to create this new writing system. Not, however, in the sense of hearing a voice, like Augustin Lesage, or of having one’s hand guided by an external spirit, like Rosa Zharkikh or Raphaël Lonné, but in that of a solar vision: on his way to work one day, he suddenly saw seven differently coloured suns orbiting in the sky. So did the Heavenly Father reveal Himself to him, endowing him with the power to interpret his worldly surroundings. Adopting the name Cheik Nadro-le-Révélateur (the Revealer), he went on to devote himself to teaching the divine truths imparted to him in his dreams. (2)

Charged with this new mission, Bouabré applied himself to transcribing forms he discovered on small stones found in the Bété village of Békora that were renowned for their motifs and mysterious origins. After collecting and studying the stones as might an encyclopaedist, he concluded that they depicted the remnants of an ancient writing system. He went on to match the forms he discovered with phonemes from the Bété language, linking these to syllables from the French language and thus creating an alphabet consisting of 448 monosyllabic pictograms. The resulting syllabary can be used in all languages, much in the utopian spirit of inventing Esperanto as a universal second language.

In short, Bouabré translated the Bété language, which until then had only been handed down orally, into its written equivalent. His goal was to safeguard his culture by putting it into writing, thus ensuring it would last and be remembered. As such, he also furnished the African language with a writing system of its own and, by the same token, took his revenge on the colonialists who imposed their European alphabet on Africa. Furthermore, he set about spreading his ‘African writing’ by recording it in school notebooks to facilitate its teaching and usage. Begun in 1956, and completed during the first three months of 1958, his alphabet was published that same year by Theodore Monod, director at the time of the French Institute of Black Africa (IFAN) in Dakar. Intent on proving the usefulness and universal quality of his invention, Bouabré himself put it into practice by translating all sorts of texts into his invented written language: poems, stories, encylopedic pages and even political speeches. Subsequently, he took to researching body markings (scarifications), this time recording the bodily cuts and scratches he came across to translate them into graphic form. Grouped together, they became his Musée du visage africain (Museum of African Faces), launched in 1965.

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