HaberDash Monthly — January 2024

Herdthinner
11 min readJan 18, 2024

This month, we profile contemporary artist Ouattara Watts, publish an essay by Christian Viveros-Fauné, and share a Herb-Infused Salt Recipe.

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Ouattara Watts, a prodigious artist in his fifth decade of painting, is a testament to the enduring power of artistic expression. His work comprises large-to-monumental canvases, watercolors, gouaches, drawings, and collages, developed over forty-five years, forming a dense and essential forest of artistic achievements. His visual language is expansive, complex, and unabashedly joyful, affirming the painting’s universal purpose.

Watts has defied easy categorization throughout his career, weaving an intricate web of influences, inspirations, and cultural references that resist linear interpretation. From his early paintings oscillating between earth tones and primary colors to his later works embracing an explosion of signature elements like mathematical equations, ancient hieroglyphs, and cosmic bursts, Watts’ artistic journey has been relentless experimentation and playfulness.

Jackson Pollock, There Were Seven in Eight, 1945, oil, enamel and casein on canvas, 43″ x 8′

Yet, despite a continuous presence in galleries and significant group shows, comprehensive museum surveys have eluded him. Watts seems to have fallen through the cracks of art history, perhaps due to his unassuming nature, contrary to the noise-making personas often celebrated in the art world. However, advocates like Ugochukwu-Smooth Nzewi, curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, are working to amplify Watts’ voice and bring his work to the forefront of the art scene.

One significant influence in Watts’ life was his encounter with Jean-Michel Basquiat in Paris in 1988. Basquiat’s fascination with Watts’ ancestral village in Côte d’Ivoire and the cultural connections it represented formed a deep bond between the two artists. Basquiat’s untimely death that same year profoundly impacted Watts, inspiring him to surpass himself in his artistic endeavors.

Ouattara Watts and Jean-Michel Basquiat, Vrej Baghoomian Gallery, New York, September 5, 1988. Photo: Mark Sink/Getty Images.

Watts’ paintings are a testament to his vast knowledge and deep spirituality. He draws inspiration from West African cultures, exploring themes like the fate of the Tirailleurs Sénégalais and the last days of Rimbaud in Ethiopia, intertwining them with references to pop culture and iconic figures like Sitting Bull, Alpha Blondy, and Allen Ginsberg. His works transcend time and space, delving into diverse languages, including Bambara, Amharic, and Arabic, etched into his canvases.

In his New York studio, Watts immerses himself in a ritualistic dance with the canvas, mixing his colors and materials with reverence. His palette has evolved dramatically over the years, incorporating many vibrant hues, showcasing the confidence and maturity of an artist unafraid to embrace new challenges.

View of “The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994,” 2002, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, New York. Wall, from left: Yinka Shonibare CBE, One Hundred Years, 2000; Ouattara Watts, Amon, 1993–94. Floor, from foreground: Ghada Amer, Untitled, 1990; Yinka Shonibare, Girl/Boy, 1998. Photo: Donnelly Marks.

Despite occasional flashes of recognition and inclusion in prestigious exhibitions, Watts remains underappreciated in the broader art world. Critics and scholars struggle to contextualize his work entirely, often reading it through the lens of primitivism rather than grasping the complexity of West African cultures woven into his art. Nevertheless, the increasing interest in contemporary African art and the flourishing art scene in West Africa provide new opportunities for Watts’ work to find its rightful place in the canon.

The path through Watts’ labyrinthine body of work is not straightforward, and viewing his paintings requires a willingness to explore the depths of symbolism and storytelling on each canvas. Yet, amidst the intricate layers lies an artist’s generous offering of tools, inviting viewers to engage with the universal through an African lens. Watts’ work embodies the spirit of Afropolitanism, transcending boundaries and forging new connections across cultures and geographies.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, In This Case,1988 acrylic and oil stick on canvas, 77 x 73 inches

As the art world continues to evolve and embrace diverse narratives, Ouattara Watts’ oeuvre will receive the recognition it deserves. His paintings, like portals to enlightenment, beckon viewers to discover their own way through the labyrinth of art, guided by an artist who has been mapping out the journey for nearly half a century. In the words of Maria Stepanova, “No story reaches us without having its heels chipped off or its face scratched away.” The lacunae in Watts’ narrative are the very elements that make his work a captivating and enduring testament to the complexity and richness of the human experience.

Ouattara Watts, OZB, 1993, acrylic, book, wood, and mixed media on two wood panels, 91 3⁄4 × 72 × 7″

Watts’s references are diverse and poetic, “I love [Mark] Rothko, [Lucio] Fontana. I love the space you find in paintings by [Jackson] Pollock, the Grand Canyon…Like Keith [Haring] and Jean-Michel, the spiritual side keeps me going; it’s a way of being and living” (C. Scordia, “Ouattara Watts: Mystical Storyteller,” Happening, September 5, 2015).

His upcoming exhibition in Los Angeles at Karma on January 19, 2024 opens at 6PM.

Herb-Infused Salt Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup coarse sea salt
  • Assorted fresh herbs (e.g., rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, basil)
  • Optional: Citrus zest (lemon, lime, or orange)
  • Equipment: Mortar and pestle, baking sheet, parchment paper

Instructions:

  1. Gather Fresh Herbs:
    Collect a variety of fresh herbs. Choose flavors that complement each other, such as rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, or basil. Rinse and pat them dry.
  2. Preheat the Oven:
    Preheat your oven to 200°F (93°C).
  3. Prepare Herbs:
    Remove the leaves from the herb stems. Discard the stems and finely chop the herbs. If you’re using citrus zest, finely grate the zest from the fruits.
  4. Combine Salt and Herbs:
    In a mortar, combine the coarse sea salt with the chopped herbs and citrus zest. Use the pestle to grind and mix the ingredients together until well combined.
  5. Spread on Baking Sheet:
    Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Spread the herb-infused salt mixture evenly on the parchment paper.
  6. Dry in the Oven:
    Place the baking sheet in the preheated oven and allow the herb-infused salt to dry for about 1–2 hours. Check and stir the mixture occasionally to ensure even drying.
  7. Cool and Store:
    Once the herb-infused salt is completely dry, remove it from the oven and let it cool to room temperature. Transfer the infused salt to airtight containers or jars for storage.
  8. Usage:
    Use this herb-infused salt to enhance the flavors of your dishes. Sprinkle it on roasted vegetables, grilled meats, or pasta dishes. It’s a versatile seasoning that adds a burst of fresh herb flavor to your favorite recipes.
  9. Gift Idea:
    Package the herb-infused salt in decorative jars and give them as thoughtful homemade gifts to friends and family who enjoy cooking.

Enjoy the rich and aromatic flavors that this herb-infused salt adds to your culinary creations!

Leaning Into It: Nicolas Lobo’s Purple Sculpture

I got that purple drank that texas tea up in my cup
grab a sprite pop the seal pour a deuce and then mix it up
I sip it slow when I jam that screw I hold it down for the low star state
gettin full of that purple oil I throw it off and I’m feelin great…
gettin full of that purple drank that codeine, promethazine
T ferrace just bought me a pint lets pop the seal I’m ready to lean.

Mike Jones, “I Got Dat Drank”

Submitted for your approval: a real-life urban subculture organized around drinking cough syrup. Sizzirup, syrup, lean, barre, purple tonic, purple jelly, sip-sip, Texas tea, drank. These are the slang terms invented for a deep-ghetto concoction that has been popularized in song and thug legend as “purple drank.” A sometimes lethal mix of prescription-strength cough syrup and liter bottles of supermarket soda like Sprite and Mountain Dew, this highly narcotic spritzer first swept the gritty exurbs of the southwest, then conquered the rural south. Few cultural phenomena could appear more what-is-the-world-fucking-coming-to bizarre.

As Raymond Chandler once remarked: “It’s difficult to tell a well-controlled doper apart from a vegetarian bookkeeper.” In this case, the vegetarian bookkeeper is wearing gang-banger pants. The product of sheer adolescent boredom — the wellspring of all subcultures great and small — the drank evolved its own etiquette seemingly overnight. Served in Slurpee-size Styrofoam cups with mounds of crushed ice and bobbing pieces of Jolly Ranchers candies — like little olives floating in a dry Martini — this buzzy beverage apes all druggie escapism since the Greek Claudius Galenus took his blade to an opium poppy. Today it occupies a uniquely weird, but characteristically conventional place in the popular imagination. To paraphrase William Burroughs: Purple drank is not a kick; it’s a way of life.

Purple Drank, Source Unknown

A cheap high born of poor and immensely resourceful idleness, the purple drank vibe sprouted full-blown from Houston’s deep fried, underground rap scene in the mid 1990s. Popularized by the late Robert Earl Davis Jr., a.k.a. producer DJ Screw — whose round the clock ingestion of drank culminated in his death from cardiac arrest at the tender age of 29 — the sickly sweet concoction is widely credited as the inspiration for the “chopped and screwed” style of hip hop that became Houston’s musical trademark. Featuring the active ingredients codeine and promethazine, drank’s gauzy opiate and antihistamine high found a perfect partner in Texas screw music’s drawly, slowed down, narcoleptic beats. Nodding off, with or without one’s dick in one’s hand, never sounded so good.

DJ Screw’s ascension to the pantheon of hip-hop martyrs did not slow down or halt the spread of purple drank. Predictably, it turned the underground trickle into a purple flood. Fed by articles in the mainstream media, fawning hack journalism (hello Vibe magazine, you gaggle of fakes!), do it yourself websites, YouTube videos and, of course, Texas-screw music itself, the avalanche of attention conspired to popularize the scene around drank, transforming it beyond recognition. It wasn’t long before drank’s following reached what some have termed “viral” proportions. One recent sports publication, for example, referred to an “epidemic” of drank in the NFL (You don’t say?). Evidently the league’s own findings concerning brain damage in professional football — NFL players are 20 times more likely to develop Alzheimers-like symptoms than men who play or watch soccer — was not enough to keep those geniuses away from drugs that affect memory and cognition.

Nicolas Lobo: LIMESTONED, 2010, Charest-Weinberg Gallery, Miami

Here’s the story from the police blotter. In September 2006, the San Diego Chargers’ Terrence Kiel was arrested for trying to Fed Ex a case of “syrup” across state lines. On July 8, 2008, the too aptly named Johnny Jolly — a Green Bay Packers defensive end — was arrested for possessing Styrofoam cups and a Dr. Pepper bottle that reeked of codeine. On July 5, 2010, former Oakland Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russel was arrested at his home in Mobile for possession of codeine syrup without a prescription. Officials say — as officials near a microphone always will — that this is only the tip of the iceberg. If, like me, you’re concerned about the behavior of these “role models” on “the children,” I give you Dr. Ronald Peters, Associate Professor at the University of Texas Health Service Center in Houston: ”You go to schools and, literally, kids are falling asleep. I spoke to teachers and they would ask — Why are kids falling asleep in the classroom? Why are eight people drinking from one Sprite bottle?” Maybe it’s time they considered asking Florida artist and drug culture ethnologist Nicolas Lobo.

Nicolas Lobo: LIMESTONED, 2010, Charest-Weinberg Gallery, Miami

An artist who pegs subcultures like nerdier twenty-somethings treat World of Warcraft — that is, obsessively, if somewhat randomly — the Miami-based Lobo has elected to explore the youthful role-playing that channels the rapidly expanding dream of purple drank. A bona fide black cultural phenomenon coming to a white suburban high school near you, the combination of fizzy grape syrup and droning turntable music is currently poised on the social knife-edge — on the verge, that is, of becoming what Casey Kasem calls a cross-over hit. Primarily a sculptor and installation artist, Lobo has focused on the frontier shattering, sociologically transgressive qualities of drinking drank: namely, how the phenomenon migrates across geography and economic classes to affect groups sociologically alien to its roughneck origins. If the oft-abused word “liminal” means anything at all — and repeated Parkett and Artforum abuses have nearly leached it of significance — then Lobo’s exploration of the coming breakthrough of this subculture situate his sculptures (especially Screwed Up Alvin and the Chipmunks) at the anticipatory threshold between one thing and another. Another step and they’ll tell our fortune.

Nicolas Lobo, Screwed Up Alvin and the Chipmunks, 2010, formica, granite, limestone, grape cough syrup, 8x4x2"

Let us consider, then, the notion of liminality more carefully. According to anthropologists, during threshold events like rituals or rites of passage “normally accepted differences between [people], such as social class, are often de-emphasized or ignored during the liminal stage… a social structure of communitas forms: one based on common humanity and equality rather than recognized hierarchies.” (In the case of drank culture, communitas knows zero political correctness and establishes ritual commonality via thrumming music and grip n’ sip, bitches.) But liminality also extends to mental as well as physical and social geography. Here’s narcosage Burrough’s again on the marginal nature of his own specialty pursuit: “Junk is often found adjacent to ambiguous or transitional districts: East Fourteenth near Third in New York; Poydras and St. Charles in New Orleans; San Juan Letran in Mexico City. Stores selling artificial limbs, wig-makers, dental mechanics, loft manufacturers of perfumes, pomades, novelties, essential oils. A point where dubious business enterprise touches Skid Row.”

Nicolas Lobo, Defaced Musician Caricature 2010, ink on mylar, 10 x 24 inches

In a society that finds a working metaphor in the movie “Six Degrees of Separation,” drank culture exists in that hopeful, transitional place where Will Smith’s character Paul nearly cons the Upper East Side Kittredges — where their aspirations to care meet his aspiration to pass. The encounter between them is as familiar as it is intractable; it is marked by a striving inauthenticity. White America and drank culture present mirror images of each other that enact their own parody: the drank scene is, on its face, as joinerish and ridiculous as any other iteration of the American Dream. Dental grills, baggy pants, X-large sports jerseys, and what is certainly the stupidest, nastiest drug ever invented — reportedly sugary sizirrup rots teeth and livers while promoting exploding weight gain — make up the newest outsiderish fantasy to emulate the myth of effortless, sexed up, moneyed, overnight success.

Nicolas Lobo, Straightened Record, 2010, Aluminum, vinyl, stainless steel, felt, 6 x 4 x 3 feet

Nicolas Lobo presents Limestoned in admiration of this double-barreled cultural inauthenticity. A raft of works made in the spirit of caricature that explore, in the artists own words, “the sociological contours” of a decadent cultural phenomenon, this group of sculptures are conceived to be experimental while being synasthetic in the extreme. Working with unconventional materials like grape syrup, oolitic limestone rocks, Formica, terrazzo and ready-made cultural constructs like drank culture, screw music and overlooked exhibition design — see the artist’s appropriation and alteration of George Nelson’s ubiquitous bench — Lobo whips up a heady, drank-inflected cocktail in 3-D that not only visually approximates the stuff, but stinks of it. Screw music and drank take “the form of a sound, a flavor, a color, a motion and a speed,” Lobo has said. With Limestoned he proposes to take us there. What awaits is described by rapper Mike Jones: “pretty soon y’all gon know about this purple drank/once that codeine hits your system gon make you lean/another fiend compliments of promethazine.”

Cheers.
Christian Viveros-Fauné, 2010

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