Ouattara Watts: Mystical storyteller

Twenty-two years after his first exhibition, Ivory Coast-born artist Ouattara Watts is back at Boulakia Gallery for his second exhibition. Born in 1957, Ouattara Watts studied at the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Paris in Jacques Yankel’s studio, before moving to New York in 1988, as advised by friend and artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Ouattara Watts tells us his story.

You were in Paris in the late 80s, how were you living before meeting Basquiat in January 1988? HAPPENING

It was Basquiat who discovered me, but before that, influential art critics were already supporting my work, including Henri-François Debailleux, Nicolas Bourriaud, Gérard Barrière and Gaya Goldcymer who worked for Art Press and organized my first group show at the time. I also had support from my agents Olivia Putman and Andrée Putman who bought my paintings, Claude Picasso too. I didn’t have a gallery but these people were backing me. After studying at Beaux-Arts, I observed everything that was happening, the 1980s were already well underway and I had decided that I didn’t want to be a part of that system. I preferred to work and show my work in private rather than in a gallery. It was really hard and there were countless obstacles, but thankfully there were people who believed in me, notably Claude Picasso and one particular Russian man. I don’t know where he came from but he bought quite a few of my paintings and that allowed me to survive.


How did you meet Basquiat?

Jean-Michel was exhibiting his work at Yvon Lambert and I went to his opening. He made a beeline for me straight away and asked what I did. For me, that was it; I went on my way and continued through the exhibition. Ten minutes later he grabbed me again and said “I want to see what you do” and I said “Jean, you can’t just leave your opening night.” He insisted and so we headed for the studio with two friends. He went crazy for my work and bought a painting there and then. He was born in the US, I was born in Africa, and Jean had always searched for Africa in his work. It was a chance encounter, he needed someone like me and I needed someone like him. I was older than him but I still wasn’t stable and he insisted I went to New York. As soon as I arrived he called an art critic who was very influential at the time, René Licat, who came to see my work with artist Keith Haring. The day after that, Jean told me he had a surprise for me and took me to New Orleans. Why New Orleans? It was all about the connection with Africa, the Mississippi, the voodoo museum, the French quarter...




During this period in 1988, New York was the artistic centre of the world. Coming from Paris, how did you perceive things?

When I arrived in 1988 for Jean-Michel’s exhibition in New York, his gallerist at the time said he would exhibit my work.  In between, Jean-Michel passed away and I was left stranded. But the belief the gallerist had in my work urged me on. There were many memorials at the time because a lot of people had died from HIV, drugs… I arrived at the point when it was all coming to an end. Sometime afterwards, the gallerist died as well, and I was still stranded but I carried on working and I ended up getting recognized by museum curators who presented my work.


You use a lot of outdoors elements in your work, sand, wood. There seems to be a whole mystical symbolism. Your diptyque The Woman of Magic Power, with the handled cross, the Amazigh motifs and patterns of figures…

Its true because I was born into it. I love Rothko, Fontana. I love the space you find in paintings by Pollock, the Grand Canyon.. all that brought me more than just mysticism in my work.


The confrontation with Pollock’s work was influenced by Indian painting

Absolutely. As well as a nod to Beuys. I love large formats! Its perhaps my African influence because I come from the north of the Ivory Coast. I realized that in the US, the notion of space which influences African architecture.


Behind the image there is a lot of symbolism.

Yes, there are a lot of codes in my work: figures, numbers, alchemy. Spontaneity leads to creation, creation leads to research. We fall into science. Science and art are complimentary. Like Keith and Jean-Michel, the spiritual side keeps me going, its a way of being and living. The human relationships, that of the artist and the cosmos. Jean-Michel exhibited work in the Ivory Coast in 1986 [in Abidjan, at the French Cultural Centre] and that was my parent’s region. And I think it was here that he saw this spiritual side in me.



You've never considered sculpture?

No, it's strange because sculpture is a challenge. But I think that will come.


How do you approach your work, the creative side?

For me, painting must heal. Painting is there to try understand the world. There are often codes,
translating to strong moments in my life, my close relationships, an influence in the everyday. But works also come from music, blues, jazz, Ornette Coleman who is a friend of mine, Keziah Jones who I love… And books too…


As a total art?




Image credits:  Galerie Boulakia

Ouattara Watts, The Woman of Magic Power
Ouattara Watts, Opus n°1, Magic Man, (1996)