Painter Obou, the Ivorian artist with a thousand masks


“Les Kpata mousso d'Abobo”, by Painter Obou, in Abidjan (Ivory Coast).

“Obou is everywhere! “ By repeating this sentence to describe him, his comrades from the Beaux-Arts d’Abidjan (Côte d’Ivoire) had ended up making his nickname on campus, in reference to his desire to present his works to a large audience and not to reserve them only for artistic institutions. A few years later, nothing has changed. The student’s nickname has become the mantra of the painter: Peintre Obou now exhibits wherever he wants. All over.

The more informed had already noticed in recent months the immense frescoes at the entrance to the popular town of Abobo, but also the few brushstrokes, more discreet, on the decrepit walls of the Anono district, inside the building. ‘an abandoned colonial building in the city of Grand-Bassam or at the café of the French Institute, in the heart of Abidjan, the Ivorian economic capital.

Painter Obou during the creation of the mural “Les Kpata mousso d'Abobo”, in Abidjan (Ivory Coast).

But since the beginning of September, no one can escape it: it is impossible to travel in Abidjan without seeing the large 4 by 3 signs on the sides of the road signed “Obou”. For its reopening after two years of work, a brewery in the capital offered the 29-year-old to illustrate its promotional poster campaign. In the background, nothing original: we see two people sharing a meal, with the city of Abidjan in the background. If the poster catches the eye and pleases so much, it is because of the very expressive faces of the two characters, painted in the shape of an almond, the protruding forehead and the widened eyes. These are the attributes of the dan mask, one of the symbols of this people of western Côte d’Ivoire where Yves Fredy Obou Gbais was born and raised, his name in civil status.

“Tradition” and “urban modernity marked by difficulties”

This mask, he made it his artist’s signature. Forced to flee his native region in the mid-2000s due to the politico-military crisis, he returned there ten years later as a master’s student at the School of Fine Arts. At the time, his teachers appreciated his work but “Found that something was missing, he confides today. They saw no particular identity ”.

In search of singularity, the young man makes the bet that it is ” at the village “ that he will be able to find something to stand out from other emerging artists. There he meets his uncle, a mask sculptor who teaches him the richness of Dan history and culture, in particular the legend of the mask which has “Always protected the village from dangers”. Better still, the uncle gives his nephew a “runner” mask which is used during the “mask race” between the villages: a rite which sees the sons of the communities confronting each other in trials to assert the power of their place of origin. ‘origin.

Today, Obou wears the mask in as much as he makes the characters wear it in his acrylic paintings. He sees [sa] responsibility, that of carrying and representing [sa] culture “, but also her generation and the social conditions in which she struggles. If the masked characters of his works are generally painted in harsh universes, it is because Obou knows well “The shanty towns of Abidjan” for having lived there. “Its strength lies in having recourse to tradition and succeeding in juxtaposing it with an urban modernity marked by difficulties”, explains Mimi Errol, artistic director of the Abidjan gallery Houkami Guyzagn.

Feed on a traditional Ivorian identity to understand the human condition in contemporary society, “It is a practice that we see a lot among artists of the Obou generation, continues this art critic, especially among those who, like him, remember a happy childhood but experienced war as a teenager, before finally discovering the harshness of Abidjan ”. But if he paints a raw social reality, his paintings are not for all that sad. “I paint what I see, so I also paint love a lot”, Obou defends himself. Lots of women too, nodding to his mother and sister who have always supported him; mostly round, because “Big shapes inspire me more”, he said. So many sources of inspiration that seem inexhaustible.

“The successes are in front of me”

Moreover, since he graduated in 2019, the young man works quickly and produces a lot. True to his mantra as a popular artist, he shares his works on social networks, especially on the Instagram platform, where more and more people follow him – especially since he has revisited, to his way, a known photo of star couple Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

“His works are powerful and more and more expected”, confides Roger Niyigena Karera, the co-founder of Afirika Artfest, an exhibition devoted to contemporary African art in which Obou participated. For this curator based in Paris, if the creations of the Ivorian artist are so popular, it is thanks to “His universal way of questioning human emotion”. More and more coveted, they are sold at prices ranging from a few hundred to several thousand euros. And its clientele, mainly Ivorian, are divided between a wealthy youth proud that a local artist is emerging and collectors from the seraglio who notice this head protruding from a booming artistic scene.

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The one who proclaims himself “Ambassador” of Ivorian culture and the young urban generation assumes its ambitions. “The successes are in front of me”, he says without blinking. This egotrip-like insurance fits perfectly with his new musical project in rap. Already author of a few titles, he is planning others to “Experimental title, as was the painting at the beginning, to see if it takes”. He sees in the clips that he is about to shoot a new possibility of presenting his paintings and his masks at the “Street people to whom art does not come”.

Solicited by galleries, institutions and brands, in the coming months he will have plenty of time to reflect, in Berlin, where he lives with his wife, Julia, then in Paris and Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), where he is expected on projects, in a thousand ways to make the dan mask and Ivorian society known to the whole world.

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