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Afro Beat

Afro Beat
signed twice, titled, inscribed and dated 'Ouattara Watts Ouattara Watts AFRO BEAT 2011 - New York' (on the reverse)
acrylic, oil, oilstick, metallic paint, and inkjet on canvas collage on canvas
96 1⁄2 x 97 in. (245.1 x 246.4 cm.)
Executed in 2011.
Private collection, New York
New York, 560 Washington Street, Ouattara Watts: Vertigo, February 2012.

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Ana Maria Celis
Ana Maria Celis Head of Department

Lot Essay

Acentral figure of contemporary African art and its diaspora, Ivory Coast-born, New York-based artist Ouattara Watts has created a singular visual vocabulary informed by artistic rigor, an eye for color and pattern, autobiography, and a penchant for the fantastical. While studying at the renowned École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Watts met Jean-Michel Basquiat at an opening, and he encouraged Watts to pursue his career in New York. Watts took his advice, and they collaborated briefly before Basquiat’s death. As Basquiat predicted, Watts’s career took off, and he has been a fixture of the international art world ever since.

Afro Beat is one of the most visually captivating and conceptually replete works in his five decades of painting, an important mid-career canvas with dense references to Euro-American and African art history alike. A spectacular work at eight square feet, Afro Beat has a pulse of its own that resonates infinitely through time and space. Watts has mounted solo exhibitions at the Kemper Museum, Kansas City (1996), the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College (2004), Magazzino d’Arte Contemporaneo, Rome, curated by Okwui Enwezor, (2004). His work is held in prestigious public collections like the Museum of Modern Art, New York, where his painting is included in the rehang of the permanent collection, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art, Washington, D.C., the Tang Museum, Saratoga Springs, and the Hess Art Collection, South Africa.

Referring to Afrobeat, a vibrant genre of music fusing popular West African music with American jazz, soul, and funk, Watts’s canvas is equally eclectic. Earth tones with dotted reds form the background, while vertical black columns frame the scene, reminiscent of the floating dreams of Joan Miró. Composed of collaged elements, Afro Beat broadens into a variegated expansion of forms, from a photograph of an African bust to mathematical notations and regimented rows of pigment contained in a levitating square. A humble drawing of a tree emerges from the collaged bust, and from a motionless statue grows new life, just as art is essential to life. Expressionistic splashes of paint coexist with drawn cubes and triangles. Afro Beat is akin to the interconnected concepts on a professor’s chalkboard. As Watts muses, “There are a lot of codes in my work: figures, numbers, alchemy. Spontaneity leads to creation, creation leads to research” (C. Scordia, “Ouattara Watts: Mystical Storyteller,” Happening, September 5, 2015). He thereby theorizes new relationships to space, color, and time. As critic A.M. Weaver writes, “Watts constructs his own unique cosmological system, through which he filters cross-cultural lived experiences and reflections on the juxtaposition of modernism and traditional practices” (A.M. Weaver, “Exhibition Review: Body of Evidence, National Museum of African Art, Washington DC, June 14, 2006—December 2, 2007,” African Arts, Vol. 41, No. 4, p. 90). Central to Watts’s universe is the imagery of the African diaspora, which reinvigorates the languages of appropriation, collage, and abstraction exemplified in Afro Beat.

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). Spirituality is his medium, which enables him to create painterly communities from vastly different genres across time and space. Afro Beat is a gleaming star in Watts’s multinational mythology that brings together disparate histories and visual cultures. A musical score that finds communion within difference, Afro Beat builds a shared dancefloor and a cause for celebration.

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