The African art sensation Omar Ba and his fascinating “reinvention” of painting

Bambilor (Senegal) (AFP) – In the tranquility of his Senegalese studio, inhabited by birdsong, the painter Omar Ba begins a canvas on the floor, applying an inky black background.

A bias in the genesis of his dedicated work, questioning the state of the world and Africa’s place.

This black background, “it’s like the night: perspective can be lost … but for me every object and thing finds its place,” he says in the intimacy of his studio, after a sandy track covered with shells up close covered is water lily.

While he spins around a screen more than five meters long for minutes, his long and imposing barefoot silhouette remains still.

He crouches down and throws himself into the sketch of a group of young people.

He is in “perfect union” with this black. It says “be” the color black, “noble and gorgeous”.

“I feel like every other color I put on will give me exactly what I want,” he explains.

At 45, Omar Ba is one of the rising stars of contemporary African art and one of the artists most treasured by collectors.

Safe haven

He is one of the sensations of the 14th Dakar Biennale, which opened on Thursday.

The painter expresses his joy at exhibiting for the first time there and in his country, where he was born into a family of seven brothers and sisters.

Contemporary artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam on May 9, 2022 in Senegal JOHN WESSEL AFP

In Dakar, after breaking off his apprenticeship as a mechanic, he began his art studies, which he continued in Geneva from 2003.

The artist experienced the galley, exhibited in hair salons and cafes before his talent was unveiled by curator Federica Martini in 2009.

Since his first exhibition in Switzerland in 2010, the artist, who lives between Senegal, Brussels and Geneva, has been exhibited at the Center Pompidou in Paris and in many of the largest galleries and museums worldwide.

In an oasis of calm, he has built a workshop where he charges his batteries in the middle of a mango tree plantation, an hour’s drive from Dakar.

The land is occupied by cows, ducks, lush flowers and birds flying above his canvases.

The workshop accumulates a junk of material like these “Typex” correction pens that he uses to go through his drawing one by one, and documentation finds like these WWII magazines.

Contemporary artist Omar Ba in his studio in Sangalkam, on May 9, 2022 in Senegal
Contemporary artist Omar Ba in his studio in Sangalkam, on May 9, 2022 in Senegal JOHN WESSEL AFP

They helped him understand the propaganda when this grandson of a Senegalese skirmisher wanted to denounce the ravages of war.

creatures

Enigmatic, even hallucinatory and extremely poetic, his work is populated by creatures with the heads of goats, rams or Horus, the Egyptian deity with the head of a falcon.

“These half-human, half-animal characters are a nod to the nature of humans, which I think act like animals in the jungle,” he notes.

Contemporary artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam on May 9, 2022 in Senegal
Contemporary artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam on May 9, 2022 in Senegal JOHN WESSEL AFP

His characters embody the traumas inherited from colonialism, tyranny, violence, North-South inequalities, but also hope.

In a 2021 exhibition in Brussels, he depicted several imaginary heads of state seated in front of a table with their hands resting on a book symbolizing that constitution that many real leaders have manipulated to stay in power indefinitely.

“We see that Africa wants to go somewhere else, wants to move … There are wars, heads of state have been toppled, dictatorships, that worries me,” he says.

“Omar Ba? But he’s reinventing painting!” exclaims the Biennale’s Artistic Director Malick Ndiaye, “It’s a powerful and innovative work” and an incessant research process.

Contemporary artist Omar Ba in his studio in Sangalkam, on May 9, 2022 in Senegal
Contemporary artist Omar Ba in his studio in Sangalkam, on May 9, 2022 in Senegal JOHN WESSEL AFP

Omar Ba is represented by Templon, a renowned French gallery. He is currently exhibiting around twenty paintings at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, with another exhibition planned for September in New York and a retrospective at the Baltimore Museum in November.

“His work is much more complex than most things you can see: the treatment of the subject, his use of bestiary and color are of striking power and beauty,” says his gallerist Mathieu Templon. “He is one of the African artists who has the most aesthetic and political work today”.

Contemporary artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam on May 9, 2022 in Senegal
Contemporary artist Omar Ba paints on a black canvas in his studio in Sangalkam on May 9, 2022 in Senegal JOHN WESSEL AFP

An “African artist should not remain indifferent to what is happening on this continent,” says Omar Ba.

“We must try to see what we can bring to finally build up, to pacify and to give hope,” he says with a gentle smile.

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