Omar Ba paints a dense treatise of an alternative epistemology and ways of being

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Omar Ba, Superman and The Constitution I, 2021,
Omar Ba, Superman and The Constitution I, 2021, Acrylic, pencil, oil, Indian ink and Bic pen on cardboard 250 x 150 cm -98 3/7 x 59 1/16 in

In the liminal space between dreams and reality, present and future, Omar Ba paints a vision of a radically different future while formulating an acerbic critic of the present. 

As a Senegalese-born artist living and working between Dakar and Geneva, Omar Ba perpetually moves between countries and cultures. This flow of movement positions him in the delicate area where cultures cross over, overlap, and sometimes collide. That amorphous in-between space, impossible to pinpoint on a map, is not a literal physical space. It is more of a mindscape, shared by the diasporic population or anyone who has lived through a long-term cross-cultural experience.

Ba’s oeuvre denotes that liminal cultural space and his exceedingly hybrid visual language is a sharp expression of his cross-cultural experience. He resorts to a dense layering of a combination of paints and ink (acrylic, oil, pencil, Indian ink) applied in a myriad of ways, particularly in small and thin brush strokes or dots, to delineate human and vegetal forms. “I am attracted to accumulation.” He says when commenting on his creative process. “I think I do it because I’m always trying to find something. So when I juxtapose shapes, I find other shapes. When I lay colors, I mix them, and I find other colors, and so on. And it is this quest to research new things that maybe pushes me to work like this.” He usually works simultaneously on a series of paintings, spreading his investigation into colours and forms across several surfaces.

That quest for new forms and colors gives rise to intensely rich and immersive compositions that seamlessly connect characters and their natural environments. The hybrid characters, part human, part animal, and part vegetal, often appear deeply ensconced in forest-like rich foliage or natural forms. In this chimeric world, humans are part of nature, and nature seemingly has a human face. Both are linked by an unbreakable bond that makes each an indispensable part of a broader eco-system.

As speculative as it may look, this is a vision of the world that echoes the principles of African cosmology. It regards elements of the natural world as living beings, essential cogs in a concentric and complex system, which humans are also part of. This perspective stands in sharp contrast with a western worldview still influenced by the medieval notion of “the great chain of being,” which looks at animals and plants as mere resources positioned far below humans in the hierarchy of the world.

A series of questions bursts out of these large-scale paintings of an alternative view of the world. How would humans behave if they saw themselves as an integral extension of nature? What would viewers do if their arms could transmute and become branches of a tree? Would men still feel as if they were supermen and invincible if organic life sprouted from their jackets? What world could emerge from a philosophy that unifies humans and nature in a partnership of equals?

These questions go far beyond the sometimes transactional solutions articulated these days – even among climate advocates – which justify concerns about nature primarily by a desire to protect humans, thus giving prevalence to humans still.

Omar Ba, Man and Superman I, 2021, Acrylic, pencil, oil, Indian ink and Bic pen on cardboard, 250 x 150 cm -98 3/7 x 59 1/16 in
Omar Ba, Man and Superman I, 2021,
Acrylic, pencil, oil, Indian ink and Bic pen on cardboard, 250 x 150 cm -98 3/7 x 59 1/16 in

For now, though, this radical future of an interdependent relationship with nature is on hold. The present is ravaged by these characters, part animal – part humans whose greed causes devastation around them. In the series “Superman and The Constitution,” an African leader is repeatedly depicted deploying his roots around his country’s constitution, and sadly it is not for protection. He appears here as the sole custodian of a set of rules that he can alter or weaponise to serve his interests.

Politics is a theme that runs through Ba’s past and present works and, like a vine, binds them all together. “I think in life almost everything is political,” he says to explain his constant probing of political issues. “Everything that is organised around us, even inside our homes, belongs to politics; from the way that one must manage his life, house, and neighborhood. I realised,” he adds, “that we cannot operate outside of politics. […] I realised that the essential problematics of our existence, whether it is in Africa or elsewhere, turns around politics.”

In his paintings, Ba treats politics as an open-air theatrical production, where every character lets loose their most animalistic instincts. With all the veneers of social conventions scrubbed off, human skulduggery is laid bare for all to see: greed, corruption, and subjugation. These behaviors boil down, the artist says, to the “laws of the jungle,” which dictate that the strongest prevails. This power dynamic is as much at play between the African leaders and their populations as it is evident in the relations between countries of the north and those of the global south.

The exploration of these asymmetrical relations of power led to the emergence of his atypical visual language. Ba was committed to abstract expression when he lived in Dakar, but it became a “barrier” between him and the viewers when he moved to Geneva to pursue further studies in art. “There was a barrier between me and the public, and that’s when I started to introduce figures in my painting, and I can say that’s when I started to question myself, my past, my future, and then the people around me.”

Omar Ba, Anomalies, Installed view, gallery Templon
Omar Ba, Anomalies, Installed view, Gallery Templon

This self-exploration has led to a desire to question dominant one-sided narratives, practices, and materials. He starts his work on a black surface instead of a white one, a way to challenge the artistic orthodoxy that requires white to be the foundational colour upon which everything is built. It is a dual rebuke of the negative associations attached to the colour black (and by extension to blackness) and the primacy of whiteness. As for the supporting material, there again, the artist steers clear of conventions. He paints on recycled cardboard initially used for the packaging of goods imported to Senegal, thus completing the cardboard’s circuitous journey. If there is a nod to the north-south relationship, he insists his artistic intent is centered on the transformative process: taking something that is considered worthless in one world and transforming it into something of value.

Not all of the depth of this counter-narrative is instantly perceptible in Ba’s work. The most visible parts, the hybrid characters and aesthetics, are the entryway into an enchanted forest of complex new meanings and different perspectives. They stand tall as an invitation to drop the current habit of swiftly glancing at artworks and raise the gaze to fully appreciate what is on display: a deftly articulated visual treatise. Like any good treatise, this one requires several readings and viewings to be fully appreciated.

Omar Ba’s Anomalies at Gallery Templon in Brussels will run until March 27th.

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