“Some people said I’d wasted my life, that I should be a doctor, do something else,” recalls Aboudia, an Ivorian painter with international fame and a big show this month in Abidjan.
Aboudia grew up as Abdoulaye Diarrasouba, a youth who still readily speaks Nouchi, the street dialect of working-class districts in Ivory Coast’s economic capital.
Though today he often abandons his easel in the city for cramped aircraft seatback tables and art galleries in Paris, London and New York, Aboudia remains close to his roots and his current exhibition hosted by the Fakhoury Foundation is called “Mogo Dynasty”.
“I’m still of Nouchi culture. ‘Mogo’ in Nouchi means lad, the people,” he told AFP in the midst of his work, sometimes in black and white and sometimes in lurid colour, portraying human heads, skulls or robots with teeth everywhere. The show runs until November 20.
– ‘The Africa of today’ –
“My paintings are the Africa of today,” Aboudia asserts in front of a piece called “The Death of the King”. “In this one, they’re trying to give the king medicine… This too is Africa, where there’s tradition, people who struggle to live. I wanted to tell that, the Mogos.”
While proud of his African identity, Aboudia refuses to be categorised. “I consider myself to be an artist, an artist who comes from Africa. People label things like ‘African artists’ and ‘European artists’. But if you were to see my work in China or Japan, you wouldn’t know that it’s African.”
The painter acknowledges, nevertheless, that it is most likely harder for an African to break through to success in a world where art is often regarded as a futile activity and a difficult way to earn money.
“It’s tough everywhere, but there is the culture (of art). The majority of Africans lack this culture. Some understand, but this isn’t like places where art is readily welcomed. Here you need to fight to make people understand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it depends on the kind of culture you learned at an early age,” he says.
Though Aboudia was “very young (when he became aware) of a talent for drawing” — still in primary school with his chalks — he moved on to football and school theatricals.
“At least I knew what that was… It was in growing up and reaching high school that I realised that there was a school for design, for art.
“Curiosity led me to the school (a regional conservatory) and every time I saw these children there drawing or painting, I stopped going to my high school… At home, I dressed as if I was going to school, but I spent the whole day with them, just watching. That’s how one day I asked whether I could join the class. They looked at what I’d done and they said ‘Why not try? You could be an artist later.'”
– ‘I undress people’ –
Aboudia studied at the regional conservatory of arts and crafts in Abengourou and the technical centre for applied arts in Bingerville, then moved on to the Higher National Institute for Arts and Cultural Action (INSAC) in downtown Abidjan.
His work won him renown at a very young age at the height of a political and military conflict in 2010-2011 that claimed several thousand lives. The chaos was reflected in paintings of that time.
The Ivorian has often been likened to Haitian-American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960-1988) both for stylistic traits and their precocious emergence. The Brooklyn-born artist moved on from street art graffiti to paintings shown across the United States and in Europe in his early 20s.
“That doesn’t bother me,” Aboudia said of the comparison. “People say it to me a lot. At the time, I didn’t know him. I like his work very much — a great artist. But as for me, I am Aboudia.”
Today, Aboudia has broadened his range to montages, notably including a wall tapestry made of the bits and pieces of everyday life. “Clothes, shoes, dolls, teddy bears… It’s the whole ensemble that comes from humankind and children that I took to make a composition.
“I undress people, I take their clothes and I make another canvas. This follows on from the paintings, but in another form. I count on doing more and even big ones. My definition of art is the search for new sensations.”