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Political Animals: Omar Ba’s American Debut at the BMA Speaks Poetry to Power

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Omar Ba’s first American museum show, Political Animals, has been open to the public at the Baltimore Museum of Art since November of 2022. It closes this Sunday the 2nd of April, marking the Baltimore institution’s latest exhibition celebrating artists of underrepresented demographics. As of late, the museum has been showcasing contemporary artists whose work explores the macro and micro intersections of identity. In particular, Blackness, in its many-petaled kaleidoscope, has been offered a chance to tell its stories. 

In the exhibition text, Asma Naeem, now the BMA’s Director (formerly the Chief Curator), explains: “This exhibition reflects the BMA’s vision to share the work of artists who engage with the African diaspora as part of our broader commitment to expanding the narratives of art history and the artists represented in our galleries.”

 

Photo by Mitro Hood.

So much of the artwork exploring themes of identity has deep roots in what some have disdainfully called “folk art.” That’s important to note, considering this much-needed focus on artists of color and minorities presenting works that stem from their lineages and generational experiences. It’s fitting, then, that Senegalese artist Omar Ba should make his debut American landfall in Baltimore—a city known for its appreciation of multi-dimensional presentations, with a certain “grit” as an underlying thread. 

Born in 1977 in Senegal, Omar Ba currently lives and works between Dakar, Geneva, and Brussels. The diverse locations of these residences evidences an internationally-supported career, and the artist’s practice is—appropriately—thematically and aesthetically tied to the two continents he calls home and their intertwined histories. 

Ba’s work is mixed-media, showcasing the immensity and large-scale grandeur of European fine arts painting, fused with intimately-scaled techniques and sketch drawings. As a whole, Ba has created an exhibit that expands upon very specific themes; power, oppression, resilience, political focus, and class status. He explores these themes through his own concepts; his work, however, is always centered around his own Blackness, sutured together within this context of micro and macro Black identity.

Yet Ba doesn’t follow a literal mode of self-expression. His work is a type of coded dreamscape where textures are exaggerated, where warm colors are turned way up to highlight melanin.

 

"Not Fiction but Glory," 2022. Courtesy of the artist and Templon, Paris - Brussels - New York . Photo by Mitro Hood.
"À corriger 7" (To Be Corrected 7). 2009. Courtesy of Wilde Gallery, Switzerland.
"Les Autres" (The Others). 2016. Private collection, Switzerland

Political Animals includes 15 large-scale mixed-media paintings on canvas and corrugated cardboard, two modular wall paintings, 21 early works on paper, and a mural designed specifically for the BMA exhibition—an important debut for an artist whose works are highly lauded for their fusing of relatability in terms of political perspective with the softness of a wild poetry. The title “Voyage au delà de l’illusion 2,” a large oil and mixed-media painting on canvas, makes reference to seeing the truth beyond the illusion; a man holds his face while a look of horror extends across his visage.

Both Ba’s large scale works and smaller paper prints in this exhibit showcase different effects. His larger works show the might implored when the delicacy of etching, scratching, and muted color contrast is paired with a large-scale surface. The breadth of effect is major, imploring the viewer to move their gaze around to take in each detail, which expand exponentially at each point of visual access. 

 

Photo by Mitro Hood.
Photo by Mitro Hood.
"Océan Atlantique 3" (Atlantic Ocean 3), 2021. Private Collection, Switzerland - Geneva . Courtesy of Wilde Gallery, Switzerland. Photo: Philipp Hänger
"Voyage au-delà de l'illusion 2" (Voyage Beyond Illusion 2). 2022. Private Collection.

The artist finds inspiration in the streets of Dakar. He uses a camera to document what he sees interactively on street corners and sidewalks: youthful folks going about their day, what type of clothing they’re wearing, how their surroundings juxtapose against them, organic color palettes natural to Senegal highlighted by the sun. A majority of his large scale works start with a black base instead of a lighter tinted color. This is to combat the idea that whiteness is the inherent default in terms of beauty standards. The racial dynamic present here has echoes stemming from the mystique surrounding Basquiat and his exhibits drawing influence from African folk art, or his cultural legacy.

Ba’s history painting-inspired scenes utilize antiquity as a straight shot through colonialism, into modern themes of world power dynamics. This is apparent in pointed references to nondescript members of the UN, patriarchs of major global powers, and their verbosity translated through a lens of great wealth. Luxury is a commodity of only those who can afford it by way of capitalist venture—a truth that is given a rocket tail of momentum by oppressive power.

Ba’s work explores these interconnections—showing the viewer the gargantuan amount of inherent malice natural to politics, for this lack of exposure to these inter-linkings is one of many side effects of oppression using hints of global influence, coded into his works. War references show up by way of specific countries flags and maps of particular geographies.

 

Installation view. Photo by Mitro Hood.

Senegal, like many African cradles of international sourcing, has been left in a wake of over-exploitation, only to be abandoned to its own devices in a power vacuum. How then can a people express themselves through the wreckage of European affluence? Ba seeks to hone in on this question by tailoring traditional structural standards of visual art to his desired effect. The message does not tarry with its storytelling of power dynamics.

The questions posed by Ba’s work, which plays with ambiguity, are a refreshing foil to American politics, which are so often expressed into American culture via a system of pointillism: one extreme to another with no room for gradience in between.

We can applaud the BMA’s evident commitment to showcasing the works of artists whose perspectives need to be weighed by the greater American public with kudos to Leslie Cozzi, BMA curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs for organizing this thoughtful exhibition. But, considering his internationally known status, it’s equally important to ask why Omar Ba hasn’t generated a greater buzz in this country–yet. It’s hard to imagine that this is the artist’s first major show on this side of the pond. But hopefully, it’s the first of many where this artist’s work is shown by American museums of esteem, giving them even more space to be considered.

 

Photo by Mitro Hood
"Naufrage à Melilla"(Shipwreck at Melilla), 2014. Collection of Anne Slaughter Andrew and Joseph Andrew
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