MoMA Showcases An Ingenious African Alphabet Poised To Help Avert Environmental Crisis

One day in 1952, while visiting a small village of his native Côte d’Ivoire, Frédéric Bruly Bouabré found some pebbles that changed how he perceived the history of his people. Primed by lectures describing the African origins of Egyptian civilization, Bouabré noticed that the curiously geometrical stones resembled hieroglyphics. Surmising that he had discovered the fossilized remains of an ancient script, he set out to determine what they meant.

As a clerk and translator in the French colonial administration, Bouabré had ample exposure to ethnography, which suggested to him that the stones could be deciphered by observing the traditional lifeways of his ethnic group, the West African Bété. As a self-taught artist, he had the means to portray the Bété environment, from animals and plants to farming implements and musical instruments. He associated each of his subjects with a different syllable, based on the sound of his name in Bété. Inspired by figures he perceived in the pebbles and their resemblance to features of his world, Bouabré discovered – or invented – a means to write down the Bété legends and proverbs that had previously been exclusively retained by oral tradition.

The effort occupied much of Bouabré’s life, culminating in a set of 449 hand-drawn pictograms that are the centerpiece of a fascinating and inspiring Bouabré retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. Completed in 1991, the Alphabet Bété is a masterpiece of draftsmanship. Using only colored pencil and ballpoint pen on scavenged cardstock, the artist made a remote society feel familiar to non-indigenous peoples while simultaneously bringing numinousness to the African quotidian. Deeply informed and devoid of ethnographic exoticism, these qualities also animate his depictions of Bété people and illustrations of their tales. The work is so visually beguiling that you might easily lose sight of his grander ambitions.

However Bouabré himself was clear about the purpose and potential of his syllabary, as evinced by his first description of it, communicated in a letter to the head of the French Institute of Black Africa in 1957. “I have discovered signs that strike me as useful ,” he wrote. “He who knows these signs will be able to read my ‘vernacular language,’ to learn and write it. Too, he could use it to write in other languages ​​of his ken of it. ”

The institute’s director, a French scholar named Théodore Monod, wrote back to Bouabré, requesting more details. He received a thick notebook containing 401 hand-drawn symbols, Each distilled one of Bouabré’s drawings to a simple icon. Altogether they represented all the sounds of Bété speech, each based on the principle of the rebus, as demonstrated through Bouabré’s meticulous transcription of Bété aphorisms. The following year, Monod published Bouabré’s work in his institute’s official bulletin. Bouabré used this publication to promote his writing system as he continued to refine it and to apply it to oral tradition.

The syllabary never gained widespread use in Bouabré’s lifetime. Faced with the challenge of learning hundreds of characters, people wondered why his system was needed when most Bété sounds could be represented with the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Bouabré had a compelling answer, which he articulated in a letter to Monod nearly five decades after their correspondence began. “If I were to say that the white man does not dominate the world, I would be lying,” he wrote. “I am a black man, I was born into this world and there is a race that dominates mine in the field of culture, of science. Thanks to writing, you have circled the earth…. It is writing that made you what you are.”

The Bété syllabary was not only a tool for accurately capturing the distinctive sounds of the Bété language, and for recording oral tradition with phonetic precision, but also served as an expression of linguistic autonomy that countered colonial control over Bété culture. Other indigenous peoples have created writing systems with similar motivations, seeking orthographic sovereignty. Some of these writing systems, such as Osage, are widely used today. The world is finally catching on to Bouabré’s sociopolitical insight into him.

However there is another level at which Bouabré’s system is useful, which even he may not fully have appreciated, but which is increasingly apparent in the present environment, as humans are increasingly alienated from nature. Each sign in his syllabary is laden with traditional ecological knowledge. In developing a system of writing based on careful observation of his surroundings, Bouabré created a means by which that world is preserved and recollected each time somebody writes, whether recording an ancient story or communicating a new idea.

To appreciate the significance of Bouabré’s achievement, consider the concerns about writing broached by Plato back in the year 370 BCE. in the Phaedrus, Plato tells the story of an Egyptian deity named Theuth, who was said to have invented letters. Showing his creation of him to the great god Thamus, divine ruler of Egypt, Theuth boasted that letters would “make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories”. Thamus was unconvinced. “This discovery of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls,” he responded. “They will trust the external written characters and do not remember of themselves.”

The truth of Thamus’s perspective has only become more evident as two millennia of technological development have made writing more efficient. From the printing press to the cloud, we are ever more able to store what we observe for later recollection, losing direct contact with our knowledge of the world to an ever increasing extent. We lose the ability to react to changing conditions in the moment – ​​to answer with the wisdom of lived experience – a responsiveness possible in oral cultures such as Bété because memories of the past are ever present in the minds of the people.

Bouabré’s characters are distinct from the alphabets that have alienated us from our environment – ​​and that arguably inaugurated the Anthropocene – because each Bété icon is a mnemonic. Whenever a character is inscribed on the page, it evokes an aspect of the West African landscape or the Bété way of life. The world underlies every word. A parallel might be drawn to the twofold significance of proverbs found in many in oral traditions, which use traditional ecological knowledge allegorically or metaphorically to comment on everyday concerns, rehearsing that knowledge each time commonplace social conditions arise.

Like the meanings of those proverbs, literacy in Bouabré’s syllabary is contingent on ecological and cultural literacy because the animals and implements represented in each rebus must be known in order for the rebus to be intelligible. The act of writing mentally and physically reinforces traditional knowledge, which is reinscribed in memory with every flourish. Considered from this perspective, the abundance of Bété characters is an asset, not a problem.

Bouabré once said that “writing fights against forgetting.” If Plato had seen writing as Bouabré envisioned it, he might have agreed. (On the other hand, he might not have recognized the mnemonic value, given that Theuth’s ‘letters’ would presumably have been hieroglyphics, pictorially evoking life on the Nile. The Egyptians were ahead of their time.) Problems arise when symbols overwrite experience and format it for archiving.

To counteract this tendency, and to reactivate memory for ecological responsiveness and responsibility, every people and population needs a set of icons akin to what Bouabré provided to the Bété. Bouabré was generous to offer his symbols to humankind for use in other languages, but each community must discover its own signs by keen observation of the landscape in order for those signs to have full force. This process of collective composition can facilitate contribution to ecological knowledge in the here-and-now by all – keeping pace with climate change – and invest people in its dissemination as knowledgeable participants in its collection. Active use of the symbols in everyday life will reestablish memory where it belongs: inside people’s minds.

The scripts that emerge might be integrated into the digital realm by making characters available in Unicode, as Bouabré’s intellectual heirs are striving to do for Bété. Through digitalization comes new opportunities for sharing that can overcome the cloud’s mnemonic haze. Imagine an atlas of proverbs or allegories, each written in the local vernacular of nature. Imagine a planetary lexicon in which local ecological insights can be translated and cross-referenced. As environments and peoples migrate with climate change, the wisdom can travel with them. The mnemonic lexicon can become nothing less than a Rosetta for planetary survival.


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