Herdthinner
4 min readJan 22, 2024

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Ouattara Watts

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).

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