With a major show of Ivorian artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s work now on view at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, we are thinking about Nexus Press, which published the first book of Bouabré’s art, Knowledge of the World, in 1998. The story of how this came about reflects an improbable meeting of a radical start-up publishing house; a self-taught artist inspired by the culture of his African homeland; and unlikely as it may seem, the 1996 Olympic games.
In the early 1970s, frustrated by Atlanta’s conservative art scene, photographer John McWilliams and five of his former students at Georgia State University—Jim Frazer, Jack Front, Deirdre Murphy, Bill Brown, and Michael Reagan—founded Nexus, an artist-run storefront gallery funded by member dues. In 1977, with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, it also started the now storied Nexus Press, dedicated to producing artists’ books and run by another former pupil of McWilliams, Michael Goodman.
Nexus Press published monographs of work by photographers such as P. H. Polk (1980) and artists’ publications like Marvin Rhodes’s Testify! Vietnam Veterans in Photographs & Interviews(1985) and Clarissa Sligh’s Voyage(r): A Tourist Map to Japan (2000) about her travels in that country as an African American woman.
Continually expanding the definition of what constitutes a “book,” Nexus worked with artists to create publications in the form of flip books, accordion folds, maps, pop-ups, and scrolls. One book was a musical score (to play the book was to destroy it); others were printed on T-shirts and individual cigarettes from a pack of Basic Lights.
Before it was shuttered in 2003, Nexus produced more than 150 publications notable for their use of new offset printing techniques and timely subject matter.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré (1923–2014)
Born in 1923 in Côte D’Ivoire and a clerk by trade, Bouabré began writing about his native Bété cultural traditions in 1941; his manuscripts on Bété religion, laws, and folktales were published in 1968.
His artistic career began shortly after March 11, 1948, when a life-changing vision appeared to him in Dakar, Senegal. He described the sky opening up to reveal seven variously colored suns rotating around a central star—the subject of his first drawing.
In 1956, he created a system for transcribing the Bété spoken language, producing over 400 pictograms, each corresponding to a syllable of Bété. In 1977, he made his first series of drawings, “Seed of Life,” which depicted copulating humans, insects, and animals, as well as aliens and ghosts.
From there, he worked his way out, cataloging, through ballpoint and colored-pencil drawings on small cards of equal size (actually, the reverse sides of hair-extension package inserts), a range of things and ideas, including types of animals and people, numbering systems, human activities, and even the patterns on orange peels.
Nexus, Bouabré, and the 1996 Summer Olympics
On September 18, 1990, Atlanta was selected by the International Olympic Committee to host the 1996 Summer Games. As part of an IOC initiative called the Cultural Olympiad, Atlanta’s arts organizations—including Nexus Press—were given new funding and resources to create projects related to the Olympic Games.
A plan was put into place that would introduce the world to the capital of the “New South.” For Nexus Press’s contribution, Assistant Director Jo Anne Paschall conceived a project based on the Olympic rings. Nexus would create five books, each featuring an artist from one of the five continents represented by the rings.
After an international group of nominators failed to put forward an artist from Africa, Paschall noticed a review in the New York Times of “Worlds Envisioned,” an exhibition at the Dia Center for the Arts’ outpost in Manhattan, which brought together works by Bouabré and the Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti. She flew to New York to see the show and knew immediately that Bouabré was the artist she wanted for the fifth book.
Paschall connected (via borrowed fax machine) with the French curator and long-time Bouabré collector and champion André Magnin. Soon after, original drawings that would eventually be published as Knowledge of the World began arriving by mail.
Knowledge of the World
The finished book consisted of 200 facsimiles of Bouabré’s drawings printed on cards and enclosed in a blue cloth-covered box, a trove of facts both major and minor. It has no accompanying essay, leaving the focus on Bouabré’s taxonomies.
Each drawing consists of a central image surrounded by a hand-lettered description in French. The drawings are both practical and playful, and Bouabré is a joyous sage delighted to share his knowledge.
Card 4, for instance, depicts Ernesto Djédjé, the Ivorian pop star, dancing in his platform shoes. Card 100 shows an array of bananas, oranges, and plums—food as a great uniter. The caption roughly translates as “The mixed cuisine of the mixed civilization.” Cards 160–162 depict men with torsos variously dominated by an oversize eye, mouth, or ear. Taken collectively, the cards are a guide to living a harmonious existence with spiritual, philosophical, and political systems to follow; art to view; and music to enjoy.
Paschall explains that while Nexus Press numbered the cards on their backs (and Bouabré added Bété numerals), they were packaged loose in the box. “I did not want to dictate how people went through the book,” she says. “I tried to stay true to the way [Bouabré] dispensed his knowledge.”