Ouattara: Dark Star
Weltbuendnis , 1994
mixed media on tarpaulin
102 1/2 x 157 1/2 inches
Courtesy Gagosian Gallery, New York, NY
|From the interstices
of postcolonial history and memory, Ouattara's monumental paintings are
hybrids of various cultural, social, spiritual impulses and histories,
and seem to defy attempts to place them in a stable category. In fact,
Ouattara resists categorization of his work; rather, he first conceptualizes,
experiences, and then describes his paintings as universal, fluid, and,
in his own words, "cosmic."1 Born in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Ouattara
divides his time between Abidjan, Paris, and New York, suggesting the
new global era of cultural intermingling, which transforms our boundaries.
While elements of Western art-historical formalism partially describe Ouattara's work-abstract expressionism, cubism, and the graffiti-like works of Jean-Michel Basquiat (who supported Ouattara's work)-the emblematic images and figures in his work become guideposts with which we negotiate the paintings' multiple and potential meanings. Because Ouattara prefers that the viewer "free associate" rather than ask him to define the paintings, our examination of the cultural contexts out of which Ouattara's work emerges allows us to imagine how the plural experiences of the diaspora, colonialism, and postcolonialism all converge in the paintings. The paintings, then, suggest the new mestizaje (mixed) world order in which we live, where countries and cultures are often dislocated from fixed notions of national and social identity. Seemingly disjointed figures and objects mingle in Ouattara's paintings, and fluidly mediate the dominant and subordinate positions inside and outside of perceived cultural or geographical boundaries. As he states, "my vision is not based only on a country or a continent, it's beyond geography or what you see on a map Są It refers to the cosmos."2
Ouattara's personal and cultural history is also a hybrid. He was reared in a family who spoke Bambara and French. His father practiced traditional medicine as a healer and Western medicine as a surgeon. The religion in his family was a mixture of "everything," which, according to Ouattara, is voodoo. His own education comprised both Western lycée (high school) and spiritual initiation, beginning at age seven. Ouattara states, "The spiritual school permits you to understand the world. You are allowed a vision 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. It is the cosmic view of the world."3 This kind of personal and cultural syncretism-this combination of technology (modernity) with indigenous art forms, ideas, and signs-has shaped peoples and artists of the diaspora. They often reject the physical and cultural boundaries of any nation-state, preferring to commingle their indigenous cultures with their "new" social fabric, living in and between cultures and countries. British theoretician Stuart Hall notes,
Because they are irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures Są people belonging to such cultures of hybridity have had to renounce the dream or ambition of rediscovering any kind of "lost" cultural purity, or ethnic absolutions. They are irrevocably translated. The word "translation," Salman Rushdie notes, "comes etymologically from the Latin for 'bearing across'." Migrant writers like him who belong to two worlds at once, "having been borne across the world Są are translated men." They are the products of the new diasporas created by the postcolonial migrations.4
Like Rushdie's prose, Ouattara's paintings "bear across" messages between the diverse cultures and societies of his experience. For instance, in Dark Star, a drum-playing skeleton is juxtaposed against hundreds of red handprints, bare footprints, and sneaker prints. Closer examination of the sneaker prints reveals that they were made with a Nike-brand sneaker, a major Western brand. Ouattara demonstrates the reciprocity between the cultures he physically and spiritually negotiates. The skeleton, which is a figure of death in some cultures, here also appears as a lively connection to contemporary music, while a separate skull dangles with an Egyptian (ancient Africa) ankh, the symbol of eternal life. While the skeleton may, on the one hand, establish a connection with ancient symbolism, the Nike sneaker prints may remind us of the piece's contemporary nature. Ouattara communicates the alliances that evolve within the diasporic experience. Similarly, Indian refers to Native Americans, while Weltbuendnis refers to German nationalism, although when pressed, Ouattara prefers not to limit his paintings to one country or its ideologies.
In fact, Ouattara's paintings suggest a collaboration between cultures, countries, and heritage. Like many artists of the diaspora, Ouattara's work forms a partnership between past and present, often blurring the boundaries between them, and through these visually complex paintings, he demonstrates that cultural identity, like history, is fluid and changing. According to Kobena Mercer in Welcome to the Jungle, New Positions in Black Cultural Studies, "In a world in which everyone's identity has been thrown into question, the mixing and fusion of disparate elements to create new, hybridized identities point to ways of surviving, and thriving, in conditions of crisis and transition."5 Indeed understanding this hybridization of experience may help us interpret Ouattara's work, which is informed by African history and colonialism, and voodoo and shamanism (Ouattara was trained as a shaman). For instance, Nkrouma Berlin 1885 refers to the year that European powers gathered in Berlin to divide Africa into colonial states. The two figures in the painting may suggest the enslavement of entire groups of African peoples by non-Africans, because both figures seem restricted. Ouattara includes, in Amharic-the language of Ethiopia-the name Kwame Nkrouma who was president of Ghana, Africa's first independent nation. The figure on the right who has two extra heads looking to either side may symbolize an understandable paranoia of invasion. Similarly, Untitled has been interpreted by some critics as a commentary on consumer culture and Africa's long and troubled history of slavery (see Okwui Enwezor, Ouattara: Paintings at Larry Gagosian Gallery).6 The figures that seem to emerge from the murky, ambiguous center of the painting may represent slaves-human commodity-while the coffee bean sack in the painting's upper left corner illustrates another more seemingly "acceptable" commodity. However, while some Europeans colonized Africa in the 19th century to raise coffee-who better to harvest it than "natives"-the coffee sack in this painting is "naturally decaffeinated" indicating a contemporary item. The work, then, may suggest that to colonize a nation through economic dominance and penury is as destructive as slavery. Through his syncretic work-often the hallmark of writers and artists of the diaspora-Ouattara acknowledges the dispersal of a singular identity, nationalism, or way of life that is often the result of postcolonial migration. In fact, Ouattara has stated,
Presently in Africa, people are connected to technology, but they also participate in sorcery, making fetishes. But they also watch television, listen to the radio. My life is very much the same way-I cannot say that I went to the spiritual school and limit myself to talking only about that experience. My experience good or bad also includes Western style education, which cannot simply be ignored. I try to make a synthesis of both experiences.7
Ironically, Ouattara's paintings fuse together yet delineate the fragmentation of contemporary culture as peoples move from country to country and culture to culture. With paint and assemblage, by way of Africa and New York-and, according to Ouattara, the cosmos-he demonstrates that in this era of shifting national borders and cultural boundaries, national, cultural, and personal identity emerge from our hybrid experiences of colonial and postcolonial history.