In spring of 1991, Portikus for the first time exhibited paintings by an African artist, Chéri Samba. Now, two years later, we again take the opportunity to build a bridge to a cultural context still foreign to us, keeping in mind, however, the possible risk of a Eurocentric reading.

Bruly Bouabré, who lives in Abidjan on the Ivory Coast, was born in Zeprégühé in 1923, a village located six hours by bus to the north-west of Abidjan, where the Bété live, the third largest population of the country, to which Bruly Bouabré still maintains close ties. He created for them a phonetic alphabet comprising more than 400 signs, as they possess no written language of their own. The results of this not only artistic, but also in the best sense cultural work are a main focus of the exhibition.

Bruly Bouabré, who was named le poète during his school days at a white school, describes himself as chercheur, as someone seeking knowledge and universal religious truth which he writes down in aphorisms. He understands the world as text; and the places in which he finds the signs constituting this text are correspondingly universal. He reads the writings of body scars as well as the tracks of animals, the native gold weights as well as the emblems in Western advertisements, the bumpiness of orange peels and cola-nuts as well as cloud formations.

Since the late 70s, Bruly has created a universe of pictograms on hundreds of small-formatted colour drawings (usually 14.5 x 9 cm) that are shown on such a large scale for the first time in Europe.

It is not an exotic context that is shown here, however. Bruly Bouabré's universe of signatures is moreover capable of uncovering a buried dimension of our own culture which is preserved in an alchemistic tradition (Paracelsus' principles of signatures), for example, and which was last revitalised in early Romanticism. That such an understanding of the world should again become pertinent at the end of our progress-oriented and nature-denying millennium is no coincidence. In this respect, the continent in which Bruly Bouabré's art is rooted is closer to Europe than is commonly presumed. The experiment undertaken by exhibiting the works of Bouabré in our local context consists in questioning to what extent a form of art that is neither abstract nor formal but equally narrative and heraldic can attain a standing in the context of Western art production.

Photos: Katrin Schilling