African Modern & Contemporary Art

Ouattara Watts — From Côte d'Ivoire to Basquiat's New York

By Hannah O'Leary

Ouattara Watts studied art in Paris in the 1970s, and after a chance encounter with Jean-Michel Basquiat at an opening in the city, the pair became friends. Basquiat bought numerous works from Watts on a visit to his studio and convinced the artist to move to New York. Watts was even present on the night Basquiat first sold a painting for $100,000 at auction. Sotheby's Head of Modern & Contemporary African Art, Hannah O'Leary, sat down with Watts to discuss his career and the friendship that placed him on the art world radar.


Hannah O'Leary: Let’s start at the very beginning. You’re from…

Ouattara Watts: Ivory Coast, Abidjan. I was born there, I grew up there, and I moved from there in 1977 when I was still young, I was 20. I had done some drawing and stuff and I knew I was going to be an artist. I wasn’t interested in becoming a doctor or teacher, I always wanted to paint.  I wanted to meet some artists too. I used to read so many magazines and books about Picasso, Giacometti, all these people… I thought "oh, so I’ve got to go to Paris". So I went to the École des Beaux-Arts.


HO'L: And was it everything you expected it to be?

OW: No. Well the school was, but after school it was tough, very tough. I couldn’t get a gallery. All the galleries I went to said: "we don’t know about African art, or African artists", you know? Seriously!

HO'L: But this is still a problem for artists from the continent. You’re just an artist, right?

OW: Exactly! I’m just an artist! Because of my educational background [i.e. Beaux Artes] I thought what they were telling me was preposterous. I just thought: "ok, I’ve got to keep going; I’ve got to keep working". And then an independent curator, Gaya Goldcymer, saw my work and said: "maybe we’ll develop a show" and then one gallery heard about it, and they said: "well, maybe we’ll do your show in my gallery". So then at least my work was seen – still no representation – but the work was seen by collectors, and they would then come straight to my studio. I met Clause Picasso, Pablo Picasso’s son; he collected my work right from the beginning. A couple of years later I was introduced to Andrée Putman’s daughter Olivia, and Olivia became a kind of agent for me, and her mom started to collect. So at least I was able to make a living. And then I met Jean-Michel [Basquiat].


HO'L: Tell me about that - he was already a superstar at that stage

OW: Oh my God, yeah! Jean-Michel in the 1980s, what a superstar! I met him in a gallery, he was having an opening, and we started to talk. He asked me what I do and I said I was a painter, and he said he wanted to see my work. He said he wanted to come to my studio, and his girlfriend said: "But this is your opening! You can’t leave your own opening!" and he said: "No, I want to see his work".


HO'L: That same night?

OW: The same night! So we went to the studio and he ran around saying: "This is it! I want to buy this one! I want to buy that one!" All the work the gallery had wanted for their show, Jean-Michel took it. [Laughing] He was a great connection, Jean-Michel. A couple of months later, he called me from New York and proposed I do a solo show with a gallery there and then we started to work on it. I got here [New York] just in time for his last show. I brought my paintings with me, I just rolled them up, and he was at the airport waiting for me, and we went straight to the gallery. He called everyone, all the writers, all his friends, to come and see my work. And then he did the opening of his show the next day. And then he said: "Ouattara, I have a surprise for you. We’re going to New Orleans", because he wanted to show me the Mississippi and its multiple connections to Africa. He wanted to show me the jazz festival, and the Voodoo museum. It was great.


HO'L: He liked New Orleans for its African heritage?

OW: Absolutely. In 1986, Jean-Michel had gone to Ivory Coast – he had asked Bruno Bischofberger to find a show for him there. It was the first time in Africa – he had always wanted to go – and the one place he visited was my village! But of course, it was before we met. He knew about Senufo, about the Dogon, everything. Later, in New York I said: "Listen, if you want, we can go back” and he was so excited. He bought a ticket and everything. You know, Jean-Michel had a big heart and I wanted to protect him. I was with him the first time his painting sold at auction for $100,000, in 1988. Jean-Michel was so happy, he jumped and touched the ceiling. All his peers were selling for $200,000, $500,000, but that was the first time he went for $100,000. I said: "Jean, you’re going to get there, don’t worry". I'll never forget it.


HO'L: But you only finally moved to New York after he died.

OW: Because the gallery asked me to. Jean-Michel had asked me too. He said: "you know what? I don’t think it’s a good idea to stay in Paris. You’re going to come with me to New York”. And then he died. And the gallery said: "Listen, this is what we’re going to do: we’re going to give you some money, a studio, we’re going to make a first show, and if the first show doesn’t work, we’re going to give you a second show". I was lucky. The gallery sold half the show in New York and half the show sold in Japan. Akira Ikeda, who owned a very important gallery at the time - they used to show everybody - stopped by and bought half the show. That's how I got started.


HO'L: What do you think of some of the younger artists working today in Ivory Coast?

OW: I don’t pay too much attention to the young artists in Ivory Coast. You know, I had to work hard to open some doors, because those doors were closed to me. Jean opened the door for me, and then I opened it wider, because before that, even here in the US, even people like David Hammons didn’t have a gallery. I was too busy trying to open that door to look at what was going on in Africa. Nobody was buying art in Africa. And then I went to London a couple of years ago, to Tate Modern, and saw El Salahi. I was astounded. I never in my life thought I would see El Salahi in a museum. I was shocked.

HO'L: What are you working on at the moment? Do you paint every day?

OW: More or less, because I have a lot of shows coming up. Simon Njami is doing a show at MAXXI in Rome, so I’m going to have a painting in that, and I’m doing some other work for my gallery in Rome, and I am going to Dak’art, if the paintings arrive! Last time there were no paintings – they left my studio but they never arrived at the airport in Dakar. And I’m planning my first show in Abidjan, at Galerie Cécile Fakhoury.


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