A Digital Platform Activates Frédéric Bruly Bouabré’s Universal Alphabet
In this member exclusive, learn more about how Digital Bété lets museumgoers interact with the artist’s universal language.
Mar 22, 2022
When you enter the first gallery of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound, you may hear a voice speaking in short clips. The sounds are the artist Frédéric Bruly Bouabré uttering the syllabary he invented for his native Bété language. In the 1950s Bouabré was working a government job in Dakar, the capital of what was then French West Africa, when he decided to devise a way to write Bété, a predominantly oral culture, using the phonetic structure of the language. It was a project astonishing in scope, leading to over 400 characters, each schematically depicting activities and things from everyday life. Decades later, once he returned to his home country of Côte d’Ivoire, Bouabré further developed the imagery in those glyphs into the monumental artwork Alphabet Bété, which comprises detailed drawings of the subject matter referenced in each of the glyphs. Image, text, and sound are equally important components of Bouabré’s project. That’s why we were so excited to feature an interactive digital platform in World Unbound that allows visitors to “write” their name or other words using the artist’s system, hear him pronounce each syllable included in the drawings, and then see its corresponding glyph.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré. Alphabet Bété. 1990–91. Six of 449 drawings
Even though the Alphabet was never widely adopted as a way to write Bété, Bouabré still managed to inspire global interest among typographers, publishers, and linguists.
Digital Bété was in part possible because Bouabré’s script had already attracted a far-flung group of researchers and people interested in its potential broader usage. The full recording of Bouabré reciting his alphabet comes from Charles L. Riley, a librarian of African languages at Yale University, who traveled to Côte d’Ivoire in 2009 to interview the artist. CHIPS could easily incorporate the glyphs into Digital Bété because a font was already obtainable online. Independently, several graphic designers, based at the time in China, investigated the possibilities for typefaces derived from Bouabré’s model.1 The manuscript pages available for scrolling were first published as a facsimile by the French publishing house onestar press/Three Star Books in 2003.2 Even though the Alphabet was never widely adopted as a way to write Bété, Bouabré still managed to inspire global interest among typographers, publishers, and linguists.
A view of Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound, with the Digital Bété kiosk at center
As visitors can experience for themselves, translating or transliterating one language into another is a richly complex process, which makes Bouabré’s undertaking all the more impressive. Some names or words may be easy to pair with the sounds and images available on the screen, and others may have to be approximations. The variety of possible outcomes is helpful for understanding how his system reveals the cultural politics of language. Teaching others how to write with his script was a way for Bouabré to share and spread Bété forms of knowledge around the world.
On April 19, my colleague Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi and I will be joined by Adam Squires and Dan Shields from CHIPS for a live online conversation about the Digital Bété project. Members at the Explore category and above are invited to participate.
Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound, organized by Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi, The Steven and Lisa Tananbaum Curator, with Erica DiBenedetto, Curatorial Assistant, and with support from Damasia Lacroze, Department Assistant, Department of Painting and Sculpture, in on view at MoMA through August 13, 2022.
Introducing Frédéric Bruly Bouabré: World Unbound
Read an exclusive excerpt from the exhibition catalogue online.
Ugochukwu-Smooth C. Nzewi
Mar 15, 2022
The Artist in the Archive: Adam Pendleton: Who Is Queen?
In this exclusive feature for members, MoMA’s chief archivist explores how the Museum’s history feeds into the artist’s monumental installation.
Sep 24, 2021