Aboudia: ‘It’s possible to grow up on the street and become someone’

The acclaimed Ivorian artist, who works from his studios in Abidjan and New York City, discusses the ideas behind his distinctive work and its links to the street children who find escape through graffiti

Abdoulaye Diarrassouba, the Ivorian contemporary artist known as Aboudia. ‘There aren’t many things more important than kids,’ he says in our short film above. ‘Children are the next generation, the pillars of the country, of every country around the world’

Nouchi, it seems, is many things. Literally, it’s a combination of two words from the West African Malinké language that together mean ‘moustache’ — a reference to the bad guys of 1970s westerns who inspired a group of imitators on the streets of Abidjan, the capital of Côte d’Ivoire.

From there, it became the name of the slang spoken on those streets — a fusion of Ivorian vocabulary and French that is now so widely popular it has its own writing system and admirers throughout the French-speaking world.

Then, it became the term used by the celebrated Ivorian artist Aboudia (aka Abdoulaye Diarrassouba) to describe his distinctive style — influenced by the graffiti of Abidjan and the traditional wood carvings of West Africa — which has led to comparisons with Basquiat.

Given a different spelling, Noutchy, it is also the name of the artist’s dog and companion during the Covid lockdown, which Aboudia largely spent in Abidjan, his home city.

Aboudia (b. 1983), New Work London, 2014. Acrylic and oil stick on canvas. 59⅛ x 82⅜ in (150.2 x 209.2 cm). Estimate: $30,000-50,000. Offered in Modern & Contemporary Art Dubai until 31 May 2024 at Christie’s Online

Aboudia was born in 1983 in Abengourou, 200km from Abidjan, and discovered art — which he describes as ‘this little thing in me, a place for drawing’ — at school. After winning a competition called Draw Me Your Dream, he left home, aged 15, to study at the Centre Technique des Arts Appliqués in Bingerville, sleeping in the classroom when the other students had left for the night. He graduated from the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Abidjan in 2005.

His work came to the attention of the wider world in the wake of the conflict that followed Côte d’Ivoire’s presidential elections in December 2010. While other artists fled Abidjan, Aboudia stayed in his studio, hiding in the cellar as the bullets whistled overhead, then venturing outside and painting what he saw.

Despite creating 21 canvases during this time, he insists he is not a war painter. ‘I was simply describing a situation, to create a record of my country’s recent history,’ he says. ‘Artists, writers, filmmakers are spokespersons for an entire nation, their nation, and the world.’

Aboudia (b 1983), Untitled. Acrylic, oilstick and collage on canvas. 58¼ x 58⅝ in (148 x 149 cm). Estimate: €30,000-50,000. Offered in Art contemporain on 7 June 2024 at Christie’s in Paris

His enduring subject remains the children who live on the streets of Abidjan’s toughest neighbourhoods, and, by extension, everywhere else. 

‘There aren’t many things more important than kids,’ he says in our short film above. ‘Children are the next generation, the pillars of the country, of every country around the world. The street doesn’t make children. Is it the children who are leaving home? Or their parents who are throwing them out? I ask myself these questions constantly.’

Like the street kids’ murals, Aboudia’s own works — heavily layered canvases mixing collage, acrylic paint and oil stick — incorporate found materials such as newspaper and magazine cut-outs.

‘I pick them up from the street,’ he says. ‘Out of rubbish bins, off the pavement. I use cardboard, charcoal and pencil, to reflect the reality of these children. They draw their dreams using chalk and charcoal and anything else they can find.’

Aboudia (b. 1983), Untitled, 2018. Oil, oilstick, printed paper collage and cardboard collage on canvas. 47¼ x 47¼ in (120 x 120 cm). Estimate: $25,000-35,000. Offered in First Open | Post-War & Contemporary Art until 4 June 2024 at Christie’s Online

Aboudia’s phantasmagorical visions can be dark and brutal, often featuring skulls and guns, but the children themselves are outlined in vibrant oil stick, their startled faces retaining an innocence that belies their privations and the violence that surrounds them.

‘You have to show that, despite the pain and the sadness and the suffering, these children are happy,’ says the artist. ‘That’s what I do with colour, show the joy of these children. I’m treating something negative with joy, with colour, with verve.’

Today, Aboudia is one of the biggest names in contemporary African art. He was included in both of the Pangaea exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery in 2014 and 2015, is represented by galleries in London, New York and Barcelona as well as Abidjan, and has exhibited at major art fairs from Art Basel in Basel and Miami to 1:54 in London, New York and Marrakech.

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Championed by Jean Pigozzi and Charles Saatchi, his work is highly sought-after by private collectors. In October 2020 Untitled, from 2013, sold at Christie’s in London for £52,500, setting a new auction record for the artist. Earlier in the year, Famille Seule, executed in 2018, fetched £43,750, nearly five times the high estimate.

With success has come a sense of responsibility towards other artists and the street kids who inspire him, whom he supports through his cultural centre and foundation in Bingerville. ‘That’s my modest contribution, because it is thanks to their story that I have my story, and we have to help each other,’ he says.

‘The foundation helps them access health and education, and it encourages them not to lose hope. It shows them that life on the streets doesn’t have to be a death sentence, that it’s possible to grow up on the street and become someone.’

For Aboudia, making art is a way of trying to understand what is happening in our world. ‘If we are capable of making war, why can’t we make peace and decide to help those that are sleeping on the streets?’ he asks. ‘We have that power, so what’s not working? That’s the question I ask myself again and again. I hope I’ll find the answer.’

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