Peintre Obou has a particular art practice: the MASK. He is now an ambassador of this famous African cultural element. From West Ivory Coast to Europe – How to live one’s cultural identity and incorporate it into contemporary life?
Peitre Obou shares his story.
By wearing the mask, I become the ambassador of my culturepeintre obou
Who is Peintre Obou?
Obou Fredy Gbais i snative from the West of the Ivory Coast. He studied in Abidjan, and he graduated at the Beaux Arts school with a Master’s degree in painting.
This practice plays a key role in his life. It is how he communicates his vision and fully express himself. Therefore, he prefers showing his face while being masked. Wait a minute! We’re not talking about any random or basic mask. It is a cultural element dating for centuries.
While he stays in Berlin, Germany, we have met him to discuss it.
The mask and you : How did you two meet?
Peintre Obou: While I studied at the Beaux Arts in Abidjan, I was encouraged to deepen my practice by expressing a more personal vision. To do this, I had to go to the source and search among those who had gone before me. So, I went to my village, near Man (in the west of the Ivory Coast). It is the place where I met the Mask. While continuing my quest and exchanging with the inhabitants, I was able to meet an elder who gave me invaluable pieces of information.
One must know that masks are cultural and sacred objects. So some protocols must be respected and ceremonies performed to get to know them. Information is not passed on to the first person.
What could you share with us?
Peintre Obou: Every village in the region has its mask. The one I’m wearing is that of Bounta, my village. In the past, masks contests were organised. The winner also designated the most powerful village. The mask was also used as a ‘deputy’ of a village and its population.
To tell the truth, when you wear it, you feel different.
What has been the relationship to the mask in your family?
Peintre Obou: As a child, I already saw my father honour this tradition and have a certain devotion to the mask. He knew his culture and respected it. When he would take the mask out, he would talk to me about it. I learned that it was a strong element of our culture, that we had to respect it, take care of it. Of course, all the knowledge, especially the spiritual one, had not yet been passed on to me. I was a child.
And What about now?
Peintre Obou: It has really allowed me to dive deeper into my artistic research. By wearing the mask, I become the ambassador of my culture. I can tell stories from the narrator point of view.
The mask narrows the vision field, and at the same time, it enables you to change your perspective. One can easily enter into an inner journey or even disinhibit oneself.
Our face, which also serves as a social mask, is hidden. Out of sight, we can more easily be fully ourselves.
How does it affect ‘Peintre Obou’ in his artistic expression?
Peintre Obou: Now my mask is my alter-ego. I like to paint masked characters. Thus, I can bring this traditional and artistic element to the forefront. The mask sculptors have a very precise and ingenious know-how. Just look at how they apply the symmetry principles!
I do everything to make the mask part of my daily life.
What does it look like?
Peintre Obou: I’m taking him on a trip. For example, when I am in Berlin (Germany), I take pictures with him there. Bringing this spiritual and cultural element, of my own free will, to Europe has a strong significance.
Then there is also the ‘Masquerade‘ concept which makes even more sense since 2020 as we must wear facial protective masks. I have been developing it in a way that people can engage with. It is easy to participate: everyone wears a mask on a photo or during an event.
Other fellow artists have been working with such a concept. Let take Saul Steinberg with Masquerade for instance.
What does inspire you when you are in Berlin?
Peintre Obou: Without hesitating street art! There is notably the piece of mural looking like a piece of “steak” created by the Berlin collective Xi-Design. When I visited this city for the first time, I was strongly inspired. Once I returned to Côte d’Ivoire, I also wanted to contribute to the local street art scene. I started in my town, Abobo. My initiative has been supported by the town council.
Can you tell us more about it?
Peintre Obou : My wish has been to use street art in one of its original forms. That is to say, to make art available to everyone and to allow the inhabitants to feel that they also own a piece of art.
Abobo is a popular neighbourhood, where many modest families live. Therefore, one can easily feel excluded from the art world. However, arte is already present and consumed there: by singing, dancing, displaying family photos in the house.
Besides, it is also why I use Nouchi words –the Ivorian popular slang– in my street art. This way, even the young street vendor gets on board and appreciates, even more, the concept.
Actually, Everybody can buy art. The most important is to develop a certain sensitivity to art.Peintre Obou
I like to see things from a different angle. This was already the case when I studied and initiated the Braid’Art concept
What is this concept?
Braid’Art seeks and sees beauty through elements, which are generally considered ugly or unattractive.
It is an expression we had developed among students of the Beaux Arts. When an artwork was considered unattractive, we called it “Braid’Art“, with the meaning of another art form, something that offers an alternative to the usual criteria of beauty.
Then, I ended up working on this idea for my Master degree. My aim was to propose an alternative vision of the shanty towns. It is not only about poverty or makeshift dwellings. There is human warmth, solidarity, creativity… Indeed it is a beautiful place to live.
I sincerely hope that other artists will take ownership of the concept, innovate and create atypical works of art.
Masks are very present throughout the History of Art. Peintre Obou is taking part of a very long tradition both in Africa and in other parts of the world.