BALTIMORE — In July 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy gave an address in Dakar aimed at appeasing French-African postcolonial relations, in which he lamented that Africans had “not yet entered into history.” In Political Animals, Senegalese artist Omar Ba seemingly sets this nonsensical record straight with compelling portraits and tableaux that denounce Western-imposed violence and uphold African pride. The show, Ba’s solo US museum debut at the Baltimore Museum of Art, presents over a dozen large format paintings, site-specific installations, and drawings, including new works and commissions.
Feathery-like brush strokes, vegetal motifs, and stitching patterns bring dimensionality and texture to these figurative paintings, while Ba’s color palette often alternates between blue and brown, as if his characters fundamentally traversed two possibilities within the intricate nature of the human scale itself, surviving between the sky and earth.
Ba’s paintings reverse art school conventions and often start with corrugated cardboard painted black, therefore proposing Blackness as the foundation to any creation. In the way he commonly centers his characters on the canvas, Ba assumes their political nature — whether in history or everyday acts — of existing and changing our gaze.
For instance, Ba resurrects the ghosts of a massacre in “Le Camp de Thiaroye 3” (2009). In 1944, in a camp just outside Dakar, French colonial forces killed dozens of Senegalese war veterans who protested against defaulted pay and hardships. White splatters against the spectral side silhouette of an officer attempt to convey the magnitude of this atrocity. France has yet to pay meaningful reparations to the survivors and descendants of Thiaroye.
Ba is also concerned with contemporary tragedies, such as the one African asylum seekers face in death boats on the Mediterranean Sea. In “Naufrage à Melilla” (2014), an oversized male figure closes his eyes at physical and allegorical shipwrecks. Is he mourning or averting his gaze? His hands are tied in front of his body and we wonder about the true nature of his sentiments and affiliations. This ambivalence is further underscored by the medals worn on his suit: one reads, “FMI,” which stands for the French acronym of the International Monetary Fund, and others read, “for countries of the South” and “West.”
Gripping charisma and poise emanate from Ba’s matriarchal portraits of older women. Their magnetic presence holds totemic qualities. “I Am Not A Toy” (2020) echoes like a proclamation as much as a warning. They stand tall, proud, undefeated.
Ba’s large installations, conceived as monuments, painted over brick-like shapes, recall the storytelling power of ancient frescoes. Other discursive paintings acknowledge wounds: the devastating effects of fake news, the Transatlantic slave trade, US and NATO-led invasions of Iraq and Libya, war in the Sahel, and the farcical concert of the world incarnated in the United Nations Security Council.
In art coalescing with a public-facing affirmation of identity, Ba’s contemptuous — and, at times, satirical — take on oppression gives way to a new history, in which Black people choose to remember as they please.
Omar Ba: Political Animals continues at the Baltimore Museum of Art (10 Art Museum Drive, Baltimore, Maryland) through April 2. The exhibition was organized by Leslie Cozzi.
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