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Sengalese artist's vibrant exhibit at Contemporary Calgary offers hope for a troubled world

Visitors to Contemporary Calgary take in the Omar Ba: Same Dream exhibit. Courtesy, Contemporary Calgary ORG XMIT: Contemporary Calgary
Visitors to Contemporary Calgary take in the Omar Ba: Same Dream exhibit. Courtesy, Contemporary Calgary ORG XMIT: Contemporary Calgary

In Omar Ba’s painting, War Junkie 1, a young man sits slouched in a chair. He has ferocious, feline-like features and is captured mid roar. He cradles a machine gun that has some flags displayed on it: American, Canadian, the Union Jack. Skulls are floating in the background. He’s flanked by two towering plants topped with giant, pumping hearts. He is wearing bright blue sneakers.

In an exhibit full of striking images, Ba’s towering 2018 work stands out. Presumably a less-than-subtle commentary of child soldiers, colonization and the dehumanizing nature of war, it also seems to straddle two distinct streams in Ba’s Same Dream exhibition, which runs until Jan. 31, 2021 at Contemporary Calgary. On one hand, there are unsettling portraits of despotic warlords and dictators, often depicted as black-eyed, part-man, part-beast hybrids. On the other, there are depictions of children, mothers and even a self-portrait that suggests strength, resilience, community and a more hopeful future.

“It’s a little bit of a bridge between the youth and the dictator series,” says Justine Kohleal, who curated the Calgary show and is assistant curator of exhibitions for Toronto’s Power Plant. “He’s not a dictator. He looks like a young person, an adolescent or a teenager. With his posture, his clothing, that’s what he looks like. But he is half animal and holding a machine gun and the title is War Junkie. He could go either way. He could go towards the sheer hope for the future or he could go towards the dictators and down that path. I think when you’ve experienced violence for most of your life, the possibility of recreating that violence is quite high. I know this can be an issue in war-torn countries where there are military dictatorships and especially in countries where young people are forced to fight. I think he’s this in-between figure.”

With its themes of war, violence, dictatorship, colonialism, media manipulation and forced migration, it might seem as if Omar Ba’s work should be unyieldingly grim. But while some of the Senegalese artist’s imagery is certainly jarring, even the darkest pieces suggest a certain hope, Kohleal says. For instance, the depictions of the regally postured dictators tend to show the figures disappearing into nature, whether sinking into weedy swamps or having their features obscured by invading flora and fauna. The paintings certainly both recognize the evil, corruption and violence of these men and implicate the international political and economic forces that prop them up in Africa and other places in the world. But they also suggest the power these warlords wield is fleeting, Kohleal says.

“He’s suggesting that these dictators are temporary and, far from being natural or entitled to their positions, they will eventually fade into the background and be swallowed up by history or by the vegetation that surrounds them,” she says. “So ultimately, they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things. What remains, which I hope is beautifully reflected in the show, is humanity’s shared dream for the future represented by the youth and the women that he paints.”

Calgary is the third stop for the exhibit, which originated at the Power Plant before moving to Montreal’s Musee des Beau Arts in 2019. While Ba, who was born and raised in Senegal and went to art school in Geneva, has established himself as an in-demand artist with pieces in private collections around the world, Same Dream is surprisingly his first institutional exhibit. Born in 1977, he took an interesting path to become a visual artist. In his native Senegal, he beat out nearly 2,000 fellow students to land a coveted spot at a school where he was to be trained for a career in mechanics. After spending a year in the program, the students were given a strange assignment where the goal was to achieve a grade of zero. Instead, Ba drew a picture of a man being stabbed in the back on the back of the assignment and told the professor “this is what you’re doing to us” as he submitted it. His professor summoned him to his office and told him he was pursuing the wrong career. He took out his computer and showed young Omar some basics about drawing and colour. The next day, Ba quit.

He eventually ended up at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts in Darak before attending Ecole Superieure des Beaux-Arts in Geneva. While he has since found commercial success, his early days as an art student were hardly lucrative. To keep working, he would initially layer his oil, acrylic, ink and gouache painting upon pieces of discarded corrugated cardboard that he found. While he was firmly established by the time most of these paintings were created — most range from 2009 to 2018 — he still often uses corrugated cardboard as his canvas. One of his more uplifting pieces, 2017’s Team, is the exhibit’s only three-dimensional work and depicts four young boys defiantly meeting our gaze as they stare out from a wall of cardboard boxes.

“It has a different kind of texture,” Kohleal says. “Canvas is very smooth and you prime it and is often — as he mentions sometimes in his interviews — a clean, white surface.  The cardboard is corrugated and possibly found material it has a much more gritty texture. It adds something to the work.”

Given the subject matter, which seems both timely and universal, and the breathtaking scale, meticulous detail and vibrant colours in Ba’s work, it’s surprising that he hasn’t had much of a presence in institutional art galleries, particularly in North America. Almost all of the works presented in Calgary are on loan from private collections in Hong Kong, Geneva and other parts of the world yet seem like pieces of a coherent whole meant to be viewed in its entirety.

American and Canadian galleries tend to focus on African-American artists when it comes to exploring the Black experience or Black diaspora, Kohleal says. She says she hopes these public exhibitions in non-commercial contemporary art galleries will help raise Ba’s profile in Canada. Ba may be a contemporary African artist who often references his Senegalese culture. But his topics seeming increasingly universal and his work often implies that the conflicts and corruption that seem specific to Africa arise from centuries of exploitation and colonization.

“The idea is that by introducing artists like Omar Ba to Canadian audiences is that you create some sort of dialogue,” she says. “It’s also to show that we are a global society and, especially now in the 21st century, are all intertwined. The issues that affect Omar in Senegal or Geneva are not so different from those that affect people in Canada. So it’s about starting that conversation.”

Omar Ba: Same Dream will be at Contemporary Calgary until Jan. 31, 2021. Visit .

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020

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