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The Battle for Abidjan

Ivory Coast artist Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba discusses making art from the fall-out of civil conflict

In March 2011, the Ivory Coast was once again plunged into civil war. The incumbent President Laurent Gbagbo clung to power despite losing a general election and rebel forces stormed towns and cities attempting to oust him. As the militias clashed a 26 year old artist, Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, remained in the blood soaked Ivorian capital Abidjan. There he painted and sketched a record of the chaos and violence surrounding him; from the armed forces which skirmished on the streets to the tags children scrawled on walls to delimit turf.

His giant canvases are populated by frightening skull-like faces with popping eyes and gaping mouths which whirl and recede amidst impasto brush strokes recalling the expressive qualities of Jean-Michel Basquiat. The claustrophobia and fear of being hemmed in to a city at war with itself is palpable, and these canvases are a striking reminder of the power of paint.

DD: This is your first solo show in the UK, how did it come about?

After the Ivorian crisis and the days of war there was a lot of press attention on my work. A few days later Jack Bell from the same-named gallery in London gave us a call. He convinced us with a fine concept and he really understands contemporary African art. So here I am.

DD: What is the art scene like in the Ivory Coast? Is there a sense of a new wave of young artists like yourself?
The last years were not easy, for nobody, especially for artists or painters. There are a lot of artists working in a traditional African style and some who are copying famous western styles and giving them an "African touch". But there are only a few who have an identity, an individual style. This is not an art scene. You know, we know each other, we are doing sometimes one of the few group exhibitions the year over together, but that's it. I'm used to being alone, I'm working alone, the most other artists don't like or don't understand my work. 

DD: How has the recent civil war affected your style? What were you working on before?

My style? No changes, the themes changed.  My work is similar to that of a journalist writing an article: I was simply describing a situation, in order to create a record of my country’s recent history. But even before the crisis I worked on similar themes, childhood in the streets, poorness, child soldiers. I'm an ambassador of the children - they do writings on the walls, their wishes, their fears, I'm doing the same on my canvas. I'm like a megaphone for these children.

DD: Did painting these images give you a way to cope with the aggression on the streets outside?

No. While some artists chose to flee the civil war, I decided to stay and continue working despite the danger. I worked in an artist’s studio right next to the Golf Hotel [Ouattara’s headquarters during the post-electoral crisis], I could hear the bullets zipping through the air while I painted. When the shooting got too heavy, I hid in the cellar and I tried to imagine what was going on. As soon as things calmed down I would go back upstairs and paint everything I had in mind. Whenever I was able to go outside, I would paint everything I saw as soon as I returned. But the real life fear was with us every moment.

DD: Does conflict stimulate great art?
No, I don't think that conflicts necessarily stimulate art. At least not mine. This crisis and war time was a special moment in African history. Beside that the whole of daily life has an influence on my work, Conflicts are part of life, like other positive things as well. My role is to observe and paint. If I can’t do that, then I’m lost.

The Battle for Abidjan, Paintings by Aboudia Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, runs until September 1st at the Jack Bell Gallery, London.