Ivorian artist paints as bullets whizz overhead

ABIDJAN Fri Apr 29, 2011 3:39pm EDT

1 of 6. Work by Ivorian painter Abdoulaye Diarrasouba, 26, who goes by the name Aboudia, begs for help from United Nations peacekeepers during recent upheaval in Ivory Coast, at his studio in the main city Abidjan, April 19, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Finbarr O'Reilly

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ABIDJAN (Reuters Life!) - While fighting raged on the streets outside his studio in Abidjan and stray bullets hissed through the air overhead, Ivorian artist Aboudia painted.

Only when the walls of his studio shook from the concussions of nearby explosions did Aboudia, 26, seek shelter in a basement.

"I was so afraid while I was painting all these tableaus," he said, casting a glance over a collection of work created during the months of political upheaval in the West African nation since a disputed election last November.

"Some work was hard to finish, a lot of the paint is running, dripping. It's not intentional, but it's like fear or sweat, or tears -- like my soul is crying," said Aboudia, whose full name is Abdoulaye Diarrasouba.

His work over the past few months provides a haunting interpretation of the uncertainty and violence sweeping the country since incumbent Laurent Gbagbo refused to cede power after losing an election to his rival Alassane Ouattara.

The deadlock was broken when Gbagbo was arrested two weeks ago after French and United Nations forces attacked his military installations and residence.

Thousands died during the unrest. The main city of Abidjan remains awash with fighters and violence has simmered.

MOMENT IN HISTORY

"Nobody knows what will happen in future, but this is a precise moment in Ivorian history," said Aboudia.

He depicted it in ghoulish paintings spanning several metres (yards), with dark shades punctuated with bright reds, yellows and blues.

"It's somber, to show the atmosphere that surrounds us," Aboudia said.

The dripping paint also makes some of the work appear as though it's melting in Abidjan's sweltering heat.

Influenced by the late American artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Aboudia blends graffiti with traditional African and modern Western art.

Crowded scenes interspersed with text and newspaper clippings capture a feeling of oppression in a city, where thick tropical vegetation presses up against dilapidated buildings and overgrown parks.

The conflicts main players are portrayed in the paintings -- Gbagbo's fearsome youth militias, pro-Ouattara fighters, shadowy "Invisible Commandos," United Nations peacekeepers and French forces, known by their operation name Licorne and the civilian population.

German artist Stefan Meisal stumbled upon Aboudia's work on Facebook in December and immediately bought two canvases.

"He's a young African artist with an exceptional signature style," said Meisal, who has since become Aboudia's agent and provides him with a monthly stipend and has arranged studio and showroom space.

"The most important thing is for him to be working constantly and to be creative every day," Meisal said.

With Meisal's support, Aboudia's output and profile has increased, along with the prices for his work. Most of his work, which is seen as too avant-garde for local Ivorian tastes, is bought by foreigners.

"They chased me away, told me my work was useless," Aboudia said, referring to local galleries which rejected his work. "I was revolted, but it did not discourage me. I kept going back, sometimes walking all the way across town with tableaus on my head because I had no money for transport."

As daily life slowly returns to normal in the world's leading cocoa producer, Aboudia said he will continue to interpret events as they unfold around him.

"As an artist, my contribution is to tell our story for the next generation. Writers will write, singers will sing. I paint."

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