13th Gwangju Biennale — Minds Rising Spirits Tuning

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Ouattara Watts

“My paintings refer to the Cosmos.”
Ouattara Watts

How does the infinite intelligence of the cosmos manifest in the face of planetary toxicity filled with histories of looting? According to Ouattara Watts, it exists in the merging of vibratory expressions of spirit and matter. In Watts’s monumental constructions, the cosmos becomes evident in the fusion of music, collages of silkscreen and photographic images, European and African fabrics, numbers and equations, Afrobeat rhythms, and histories of political resistance from his native Farafina—“Africa” in Bambara language—that infuse a jazz rhythm into the chaos of the universe. His large canvases are propositions for a kind of a world-reading and offer a spiritual literature that harmonizes complex social and historical readings of the cosmos through symbolic systems that defy national boundaries or institutionalized religions. Born in 1957 in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, Watts completed his artistic formation at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, encouraged by his friend Jean-Michel Basquiat, subsequently moved to New York, where he still lives and works. As one of the most distinctive representatives of New Expressionism, Watts has remained for decades a figure uniquely capable of amalgamating in his work the power of Shango, the Yoruba god of thunder and lightning; celestial bodies like Sirius; and jazz and reggae music from Thelonius Monk and Alpha Blondy.

TO FELA(2011) is a tribute to the musical genius of Fela Kuti, the legendary father of Afrobeat and a visionary political activist who, as the insurrectionary president of the self-declared Kalakuta Republic—his music studio and compound—denounced the corruption of Nigeria’s ruling class and the exploitation of African resources by Western countries. Untitled (2017) manifests on canvas Watts’s talent for turning rhythm into a synesthetic experience in only a few dots, a crochet doily, and a stylized feminine face painted on a background of vibrating black brushstrokes. Similarly, Cosmic (2016) collages a large representation of an atom, references to the legacy of traditional African art, and a series of numbers and vectors to remind us of the inscrutable, magical nature of mathematics and rhythm’s invisible presence as a global unifying force. In 1885 (2019), the depicted numbers refer instead to an ominous date in Africa’s political history: that of the Berlin Conference and the exploitative partitioning of land and resources that European powers agreed to respect only among themselves.

Michelangelo Corsaro