Writing Africa: Fréderic Bruly Bouabré’s fascinating oeuvre

"Too in love with learning and knowing, I am always searching and researching, without being an honest researcher recognized by any official organization in this world [...].”1 Thinker, prophet, artist, writer, poet, encyclopedist... Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was uncategorizable, but driven by curiosity. This self-taught artist never ceased observing, investigating, representing and inventorying the world, in its material and spiritual dimensions. Beyond the encyclopedic ideal, his oeuvre also reveals his quest for cultural memory and preservation, as evidenced by the remarkable syllabary he began in the 1950s.

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré was born in 1923 in Zéprégühé, a small village in French colonized Ivory Coast. As a child, Frédéric was already very curious. His uncle sent him to a French school. Later, he became a civil servant in the colonial administration. Although this period was not unproductive, his career as an artist really begins in 1948, when he receives a vision in a dream and becomes Cheikh Nadro (meaning “I do not forget" or "I must not forget” in Bété language). This divine revelation is the starting point of his oeuvre: as a prophet, the artist’s calling is to explore, reveal and pass on knowledge and experience, particularly of the Bété culture which he was from.

"Alphabet is the indisputable pillar of the human language. It is the crucible where the memory of the man lives. It is a remedy against oblivion, dreadful factor of ignorance."2

In 1957, Fréderic Bruly Bouabré sends French explorer and scientist Théodore Monod a description of the 440-monosyllabic-pictograms syllabary he has been working on. This project goes public a year later, when Monod dedicates a long article to it in IFAN’s (lit. Fundamental Institute of Black Africa) journal Notes Africaines. This writing system is displayed on small cards of the same size. They feature text and drawings made with ballpoint pens and colored pencils, related to the Bété culture.

According to anthropologist Cédric Vincent3, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s idea was not only to invent a complete new writing system, but to reinvent it. The latter was indeed convinced that the Bété culture once had its own. In fact, it appears that he created the syllabary after studying stones which he thought were artifacts and evidences of an African scriptural past. This earned him the nickname “the African Champollion”. Monod described these stones located in Békora (a central west Ivory Coast village) as cross-shaped and showing drawings as well as all sorts of geometrical figures.

“My desire is to find on the stage of human life an African writing that is specifically African. The Bété is Ivorian. The Ivorian is African. The African is also a man of this world, although specific. This alphabet is capable of transcribing all human sounds.”4

Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s aim was both to represent the knowledge and the everyday life of his culture, but also to give his people their own writing system, as a “remedy against oblivion”. Albeit his project was first local, the artist then suggested that it could be aimed at the whole continent.

Picture from Frédéric Bruly Bouabré's syllabary

In this colonial context, Bouabré’s syllabary was an act of resistance. At several occasions, the artist described writing as a basis for the colonizers’ power, as the latter considered its absence in Africa a “lack”. This ethnocentric colonial conception suggested a dissymmetry between Africa, the continent of orality, which would be “unfit” for writing, and the rest of the world that possesses writing as a technology. Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s project was thus to re-create a balance. The idea behind the creation of the syllabary was to ensure a better transmission of knowledge and to preserve the Bété and other Black African cultures – but, overall, it was a way to empower colonized African people.

Africa has been depreciated because it is a continent without writing. The current alphabet that Black Africa considers its working tool is European and it is the spearhead of the colonizer. As long as Black Africa uses it, its regained independence will be incomplete.5” "If the Whites command us, Blacks, it is because they possess writing. Writing fights oblivion and the man who does not forget is like a God. Chance has it that I have tried to create a writing”6

Written by Naomie Bessirard


1 Lettre du 14 décembre 1982, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré, L’homme dans le monde, un géant touche le soleil, Paris, Éditions Xavier Barral, 2013, pp. 75-76.

2 Bruly Bouabré, Frédéric. On ne compte pas les étoiles.

3 Cédric Vincent, « Du lisible au visible », Terrain, 70 | October 2018.

4 Bruly Bouabré, Frédéric. On ne compte pas les étoiles.

5 Ibid.

6 « J'allais vers Victor Hugo et je me suis marié avec Picasso », Africultures, 2003/3 (n° 56), p. 106-110.

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