Like the ‘intercessors’ in the title of certain of his paintings, Ouattara Watts intercedes at the cross-roads of civilizations to reconcile worlds. His work bridges geographies and forms of longstanding aesthetic heritage, constructing intricate dialogues between cultural and iconographic systems. Watts’ visual languages are heart-stoppingly beautiful and expansive, while retaining always a layered complexity of references, signs and correspondences. It is almost half a century since he arrived in Paris from Abidjan in 1977 to study painting at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux Arts, before moving to New York just over a decade later and making it his home. His first museum show in the United States was at Berkeley Art Museum in 1994, curated by Lawrence R. Rinder who then selected his work for the Whitney Biennial (2002). In the same year, Okwui Enwezor showed three large paintings in Documenta XI (2002), having also included his work in the landmark survey ‘The Short Century: Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa, 1945–1994’ (2001–2002). Since that time, Watts has continued to build a remarkable oeuvre, composing and manipulating richly textured and colored painted surfaces with virtuosity at an often-monumental scale, as well as working more intimately on paper with watercolor and gouache, and integrating found objects and elements of collage. Seen from within European and North American art history, Watts’ work speaks among other things to abstract expressionism (Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock) and neo-expressionist fig-uration. Yet it completely exceeds such categories, and rather draws these points of reference into vast, polyphonic aesthetic architectures.
Through the iconography he conjures, Watts points to interconnected histories and heritages, overlaying systems of signs and finding correlation. From an early interest in ancient Egyptian and Greek history, as well as in classical West African knowledge systems across Dogon, Bambara, Senufo, Baule, Yoruba and Dan cultures, amongst others, he began to explore what is held in com-mon at the intersections of situated worlds and knowledges, as well as to reactivate and make vis-ible effaced cultural constellations. It was to Watt’s knowledge of West African spiritual traditions that Jean-Michel Basquiat was particularly attracted when they met in Paris in 1988. Basquiat had visited Korhogo district in the north of Cote d’Ivoire from where Watts’ family originated, and where he had travelled often as a child and been initiated into Senufo spiritual practice. Basquiat was very interested in exploring these sacred traditions and their relationship to Vaudoo in Haiti, planning a trip to Cote d’Ivoire together with Watts in 1989 but passing away before.