Who is Omar Ba, the artist who caused a sensation by “reinventing” painting?

In the serenity of his Senegalese studio inhabited by birdsong, the painter Omar Ba begins a canvas on the floor, applying a deep black background. A bias in the genesis of his committed work, which questions the state of the world and the place of the African continent.

This black background “It’s like the night: the perspective can be lost, but for me, every object and everything finds its place”, he says in the privacy of his studio. Turning for long minutes around a canvas of more than five meters, he squats and launches into the sketch of a group of young people. He says “be” black color, “noble and magnificent”be in “perfect union” with this color. “I feel like any other color I put on it is going to give me exactly what I want”he explains.

After hundreds of brushstrokes, his canvas will be populated by hybrid creatures, dreamlike visions of shimmering colors and dizzying details, where he makes the vegetable, animal and human kingdoms interact. At 45, Omar Ba is one of the rising stars of contemporary African art and one of the artists most prized by collectors.

From the galley to the greatest museums

Omar Ba is one of the sensations of the 14th Dakar Biennial. The painter expresses his joy at exhibiting there for the first time, in the country where he was born. It was in Dakar that after having given up training as a mechanic, he began his art studies, which continued in Geneva from 2003.

The artist experienced the galley, exhibiting in hair salons and cafes, before his talent was revealed in 2009 by curator Federica Martini. Since his first exhibition in Switzerland in 2010, he has been exhibited at the Center Pompidou in Paris and in many of the greatest institutions around the world.

Omar Ba has built a workshop in a haven of peace where he recharges his batteries in the middle of a mango tree plantation, an hour’s drive from Dakar. The land is occupied by cows, ducks, exuberant flowers and birds that fly above his canvases.

In the workshop, a bric-a-brac of material accumulates like these correction pens with which he goes over his drawing singularly and objects found for documentation, like these magazines of the Second World War. They helped him understand the propaganda when this grandson of a Senegalese skirmisher wanted to denounce the ravages of war.

Works that deal with the traumas of colonialism

Enigmatic, even hallucinatory, and intensely poetic, his work is inhabited 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 human beings who, I think, behave like an animal in the jungle”he notes.

His characters embody the traumas inherited from colonialism, tyranny, violence, North-South inequalities, but also hope. In an exhibition in 2021 in Brussels, he represented several imaginary heads of state seated in front of a table, their hands resting on a book symbolizing this Constitution that many real leaders have manipulated to stay in power indefinitely. “We see that Africa wants to go elsewhere, wants to move… There are wars, overthrown heads of state, dictatorships; that concerns me”he says.

“He reinvents painting!”

“Omar Ba? But he is reinventing painting!”exclaims the artistic director of the biennale, Malick Ndiaye, “it is a powerful and innovative work” and a relentless research process. 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, another exhibition is planned for September in New York and, in November, a retrospective at the Baltimore Museum.

“His work is much more complex than most things you can see: his treatment of subject matter, his use of bestiary and color are strikingly strong and beautiful”believes his gallery owner Mathieu Templon. “He is one of the African artists who today has the most aesthetic and political work.”

A “African artist should not remain indifferent to what is happening in this continent”believes Omar Ba. “We must try to see what we can bring to build, pacify and give hope, finally”he said with a soft smile.

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