"His work is recognized as extraordinary by other artists in the field," Jones wrote in 1996. "Not only does Ephrem Kouakou's art transcend tradition but speaks of universal ideals blending ancestry with modern culture."
Christine Mullen Kreamer, co-director and curator at the National Museum of African Art, which owns three Kouakou paintings, talks of his strong use of color — he works in pure powdered pigment mixed with acrylic medium — and "fairly decorative approach."
At the same time, she said, the imagery draws on traditional African culture, including references to sculptural arts and spiritual life.
In Ivory Coast, she said, "there's an intersection between everyday life and the spiritual."
Regarding Kouakou's account of being in thrall to "spirits" when he paints, she said, "I think human creativity is something ineffable. It comes in many forms."
Called by spirits of art
Kwaku Ofori-Ansa, a professor of African art at Howard University, said Kouakou's imagery "represent aspects of his spiritual experience, rituals he grew up being part of."
Indeed, a recurring image of a trio of figures, in various degrees of abstraction, represents three people in his home village of Toumodi being initiated as medicine men. As a teenager, Kouakou said, he took part in training to practice folk medicine in the Baule tribe's tradition.
He did not stay to practice because he was spiritually called elsewhere.
He was called to art, which his father did not approve of. Hence, he said, his journey started as a boy — thousands of miles and several months by train and foot and other means from Ivory Coast to Algeria to France, where he took formal study, where he said he learned "to refine the technique, what we have in ourselves."
Asked at the gallery to talk about one painting in particular, he pointed to a piece titled "Transport II," a rare venture in collage and much like "Transport I," a painting now in the Metropolitan collection.
At first you see a tight latticework in dark lines. Look closer and there are two eyes. Look closer and there are two bird-like creatures facing each other in profile. Look closer and you see beneath the lines to a layer of printed slips of paper — tickets from Washington's public transit buses.
Kouakou must have collected hundreds of them riding the buses for several years, struggling to survive on his painting, often not having the money even for bus fare.
"When you like something, you have to give yourself completely over to it," he said.