Ephrem Kouakou prefers to work while the world sleeps. The artist says that in the dead of night, absent the sound of any human voice or music, he can best hear the "spirits" talking.
He says he's been hearing the spirits steer his brush since he started painting as a boy in Ivory Coast — a fact that alarmed the elders, who apparently thought he was practicing witchcraft. Now 50, the artist left home decades ago, but the inner voices and traditions born there traveled with him from West Africa to Algeria to France to Washington to Baltimore, where he lives now.
Folkloric images that have sprung from these voices — vividly colored masks and magical animals, lush foliage, big-eyed human figures staring straight at you in dreamy landscapes — are on display in a new exhibition at the Still Life Gallery on Main Street in the historic section of Ellicott City.
An opening reception with Kouakou is scheduled at the gallery from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. Feb. 17, and his work will be on view indefinitely.
The show is a departure for the gallery, which has previously specialized in pictorial realism — chiefly still life and landscape that fits into traditional definitions of American and European art. Kouakou trained at three art schools in France, including the renowned Ecole National Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris, but he's working in another tradition altogether, drawing on a West African background in which the spiritual is ever-present and art is embedded in religious ritual.
"When I paint it's not me," said Kouakou. "It's not me that's in the painting. I control nothing."
A slim man with sharp cheekbones, dressed in a windbreaker and camouflage pants, Kouakou was speaking at the gallery on a recent afternoon, in part directly, in part through a French interpreter, Marilyn Holland. Even through the interpreter he seemed struggle to describe how he works, as if he doesn't want to give too much up.
As he tells it, painting has always been something he's felt compelled to do, as if by forces outside himself.
"At night is when everything comes to me," he said. "There's too much noise during the day. There are things that refuse to come during the day."
Between 11 p.m. and 4, maybe 5 in the morning, he gets going, working in a kind of trance, he said. He's at it every day, for a simple reason: "When I don't paint, I'm not happy."
"Ephrem is very prolific, he turns out a lot of stuff," said Sara Arditti, who owns the Still Life Gallery with her husband, David Dempster. The roughly 35 paintings in the show were all completed in the past 18 months, she said, and range in price from $500 to $3,500.
Arditti and Dempster, who bought the gallery business last year after moving to Ellicott City from Los Angeles, met Kouakou through someone they met at an event held by the Creative Alliance in Baltimore. Kouakou's Baltimore gallery had closed and he needed a new place to show and sell.
"He was broke," said Dempster. "He got so broke that he ran out of materials."
Dempster visited Kouakou in December as he was about to move out of his apartment in Hampden. Amid all the stuff packed for moving were many of the paintings now in the show.
The work "just really grabbed me. … There are pieces that have power, they engage me emotionally," said Dempster, an engineer by profession who is quick to defer on aesthetic matters to his wife.
"I was so impressed with Ephrem's work," Arditti said. "I thought it was very powerful and vivid and different. Dave and I really like things that are different."
His work has impressed people in Africa and Europe as well as in the United States. He's shown in galleries in Paris, Nice, Switzerland and Baltimore, and his work is in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington.
After moving to this country in 1990, he came to the attention of Lois Mailou Jones, a watercolorist in Washington who was associated with the literary, musical and artistic wave of the 1920s and '30s that became known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Two years before she died in 1998 at age 92, Jones, then an art professor emerita at Howard University, wrote a letter on Kouakou's behalf when he was apparently seeking permission to stay in the United States and work as an artist.
"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.