Henri Abraham Univers: Art at the critical juncture of History and Philosophy
In the parallel world of artist Henri Abraham Univers, the pitch-black sky is illuminated by a myriad of shining hand-drawn stars. Other galaxies shaped as small dots and delicately spread around the stars, glow in the distance. Harmony and equilibrium on this planet are underpinned by the adherence to the Universalist principles of Love, Equality and Unity, symbols of which radiate in the Milky Way like sky. This alternative world is often populated by fantastical beings whose shapes, broad faces, bulging single eyes and disarticulated bodies, lean on the visual codes of surrealism and folk art.
The narrative in most of Henri Abraham Univers’ latest body of work, unfolds at the point of intersection between his idyllic world, where “time is love,” and our warped Earth, where “time is money.” This strenuous “coexistence of opposites is often present in my work because it is an inherent part of life” the artist says. “In all my work, there is always the positive and the negative. One cannot exist without the other.” This philosophical tale of yin and yang, of an eternal tug of war between good and bad, is informed by the artist’s multicultural background stretching across four countries and two continents. He grew up in Ivory Coast (West Africa), as the mixed-race child of a French mother and a Burkinabe father whose Mossi ethnic group traces its origin to Ghana.
At 44 years old, Henri Abraham Univers sounds at times like a classical moral philosopher who often references his formative childhood years. He is seven years into his second career as a painter. He initially trained as a film director and worked as a music producer, before finding in painting, the medium of choice for his artistic expression. A selection to the prestigious Royal Academy Summer Exhibition in 2014 came as an early recognition and a much-needed validation. Then in 2015, after a long period of introspection, the cosmic environment emerged as his unique, physical and metaphorical space of artistic experimentation. In this space, the artist’s imagination collides with his childhood memories, and his mysticism blends with the life lessons he has gleaned. His newly formed visual language is anchored in his paintings through a series of self-styled symbols of unity (1+1=1), love (time is love) and equality (No races only men). A talismanic spider and a coil of cotton thread added at a later stage, complete the iconography representative of the artist’s trademark style. The concept, he adds, is the “thread that has connected all my paintings ever since. It has given me complete freedom to engage with a disparate range of topics. It is as though I am in a rocket and as an artist, I bear witness to the issues society grapples with, and no topic is off-limits.”
The artist will take part for the first time in the New York edition of 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair with his Nigeria-based gallery Retro Africa. Unsurprisingly, childhood is one of the prevalent themes of the six artworks scheduled to be shown. Among them, Petit Mossi (2019), and Microbe (Petit Voleur, 2019) examine the dire fate of some young children in Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast respectively.
Petit Mossi (Little Mossi) is a contemplative tale of a young boy facing a life-threatening disease, malaria. It started as a draft sketch of a lone and frazzled boy on an A4 piece of paper. The figure’s isolation is magnified once it is transposed in acrylic on a large canvas (1,60m by 1,30m) against the black astral themed background. Death has surreptitiously flown into this universe, on the wing of a lethal mosquito, and is dangling its ominous signs alongside the stars. The young Mossi, mature beyond his years, is taking the measure of the danger that is temporarily resting on his shoulder, undoubtedly aware of all the lives lost to malaria and mindful that his own life may be on the line.
The suspense in Petit Mossi turns haunting in “Microbe (Petit Voleur, 2019)”. A microbe or germ is the derogatory nickname of the street children in Abidjan (Ivory Coast) born in the early 2010s when the country was undergoing a severe political crisis. Now aged about 10, these children have turned into violent machete-wielding robbers who besiege dinners in sophisticated and coordinated attacks in the popular boroughs of the city. In Microbe, the artist depicts a harrowing fictitious retreat from a robbery scene. A panicked young boy tightly hangs on to his booty, a red handbag, while running for his life. Hovering over his head are raging flames evocative of the pressing threat of immolation, in case of capture.
All hope could be lost if not for the talismanic spider weaving love. It has woven around the limb of each figure in Microbe and Petit Mossi, a miraculous thread that connects them to life. “There is always hope” enthuses Henri Abraham Univers. The glimmer of hope opens an alternative door in the life story of these boys. Instead of a tragic end, this becomes a potential cathartic moment on a grueling journey towards redemption. Both paintings are allegories that speak of the redemptive power of hope and love even in the bleakest of circumstances.
Love is a recurring theme in the artist’s work. Love, he says “is all I want to talk about in my practice.” Love along with the other universal principles of unity and equality are playfully encoded and repeated like a mantra in the paintings and other sculptural works, (vibrant, densely patterned, pop art reinterpretations of traditional Senoufo masks) set to be shown in New York.
Underneath the seemingly lighthearted tone and the aesthetically appealing layer of his work, the artist probes the cornerstone of much division in society: race. His words “No races only Men,” echo the research of the renowned historian and anthropologist Cheikh Anta Diop, who was among the first to demonstrate that race was a social and political construct devoid of scientific basis.
With the embellished contemporary renditions of traditional sculptures, Henri Abraham Univers also interrogates the structures of knowledge, within which history is selectively memorialised and the contributions of traditional African cultures erased. Back in November 2018 at Art X Lagos, Henri Abraham Univers artwork paid homage to the matrilineal society of the Ashanti in Ghana. The Ashanti Dolls traditionally evoke fertility. The artist’s contemporary version sought to celebrate the mystical power women held, their recognised traditional sacred roles and their strength. With Zodoo (2019), also slated to be exhibited in New York, he explores the little known equestrian traditions of the Mossi ethnic group. Next, he is tackling the monolithic narrative of a crude continent deprived of scientific knowledge and looking into the advanced knowledge of cosmology developed by some ancient traditional cultures in West Africa.
The outcome of the research is unknown; however it becomes evident, as Henri Abraham Univers advances his practice, that love, unity, and equality aren’t merely a set of philosophical principles for a dreamt world. They can become a metaphorical vantage point from which the past is analysed in order to create a better future, here on Earth.
Henri Abraham Univers, Retro Africa Booth ([email protected], +2348143566926). The 5th edition of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art fair will open at Industria, West Village, from May 3rd to 5th 2019.
Interview conducted in French by Hanou