“We must try to make Africa an essential place for art” – Omar Ba


In a serene studio filled with birdsong, Omar Ba kicks off his shoes and gets on all fours. Then the famous Senegalese artist begins to paint a canvas five meters long in deep, dark black.

This is how Ba, a rising star in the world of contemporary African art, begins most of his works, which question the state of the world and Africa’s place in it.

“On black backgrounds, I feel the drawing will be much more legible and crisp to me,” he says from his airy workspace at the end of a shell-strewn path from nearby Lac Rose.

“I feel in perfect union with what I do because I find myself facing this color that I find noble and magnificent.”

Ba, 45, caused a stir at the 14th Dakar Biennale, which opened on Thursday. His work touches on colonialism, violence, but also hope.

“We see the color white as the neutral color, the pure color, the innocent color,” he said. “Black is always associated with dirty, dark…and that can affect the person experiencing these shots.”

Enigmatic, hallucinatory, poetic

Ba has 20 pieces currently on display at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, and an exhibition opens in New York in September. In November, the Baltimore Museum of Art will host a retrospective of his work.

Enigmatic, even hallucinatory, and intensely poetic, his work is inhabited by dreamlike visions in shimmering colors and hybrid creatures with the head of a goat, a ram or Horus, the Egyptian deity with the head of a falcon.

His creatures embody the traumas inherited from colonialism, tyranny, violence, North-South inequalities.

“These characters are half-human, half-animal,” he said. “It’s a nod to the nature of human beings, which I think behave like an animal in the jungle – we try to dominate others in order to exist.”

In his 2021 ‘Anomalies’ exhibition in Brussels, Ba painted imaginary heads of state with their hands resting on a book symbolizing a constitution, a way of lambasting the multitude of African leaders who have recently changed constitutions in order to stay in power. .

“We see that Africa wants to go elsewhere, wants to move,” he said. “There are wars, overthrown heads of state, dictatorships… the African artist must not remain indifferent to what is happening on this continent, we must try to see what we can do to build , pacify and give hope.”

Currently, Ba says he is focusing on solutions, a theme apparent in his biennial exhibit.

One of his festival pieces features two figures with trophies for their necks standing on a huge globe and shaking hands. They are surrounded by laurel branches, symbolizing peace.

“It speaks of reconciliation, unity and an Africa that wins – not an Africa that always asks or begs, but an Africa that participates in the concert of nations,” he said.

The biennial, held in his home country for more than three decades, holds special significance for Ba. It was in Dakar where, after having given up training as a mechanic, he turned to art studies.

Contemporary Senegalese artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam. (Photo: John Wessels/AFP)

Painting ‘reinvented’

Since his first exhibition in Switzerland in 2010, Ba, who now lives between Senegal, Brussels and Geneva, has also exhibited at the Center Pompidou in Paris.

For several years, he has been working in the calm of his Bambilor workshop, in the middle of a mango tree plantation, an hour’s drive from Dakar, sharing the land with cows, ducks and exotic flowers.

“Omar Ba reinvented painting,” said Malick Ndiaye, artistic director of the biennale.

“It is an innovative and powerful work that we are not used to seeing in terms of the technique he uses, the materials he uses and the composition and arrangement.”

Highly sought after by collectors, Ba is represented by the Galerie Templon, which has already exhibited Jean-Michel Basquiat, Cesar and Andy Warhol.

“His work is much more complex than most things you see – his treatment of subject matter, his use of bestiary and color are surprisingly strong and beautiful,” said gallerist Mathieu Templon.

“He is one of the African artists with the most aesthetic and political work.”

Ba’s work has been featured in the permanent collection of the Louvre Abu Dhabi and in the collection of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Contemporary Art.

Speaking ahead of the biennale, the continent’s biggest contemporary art event, Mr Ba said he was delighted to see young African artists “starting to enter very large galleries and exhibiting in internationally recognized museums”. .

“We have to try to make Africa a go-to place for art,” he said.

Christopher S. Washington