Senegalese artist Omar Ba tackles politics and the pandemic with paint

PUBLISHED: Thu, 25 Mar 2021 10:00:00 GMT

By Nellie Peyton and Ngouda Dione

DAKAR, March 25 (Reuters) – When Senegal erupted in violent protests this month over perceived injustice and inequality, artist Omar Ba was tackling the issues in his own way, with paint on canvas.

“What the youth are doing in the streets is the same thing I’m doing in my studio,” said Ba, stepping in black paint and making footprints on a new canvas in his airy workspace outside the capital, Dakar.

Ba, one of Senegal’s best-known contemporary artists, has often used his art to make political statements. A current exhibit at the Galerie Templon in Brussels, ‘Anomalies’, critiques power-hungry leaders through a series of portraits of imaginary heads of state.

Ba said he was shocked to see such intense violence on the streets of his own country, widely viewed as a model of stability in West Africa.

“These are things I had seen on TV, but never here,” he told Reuters in an interview.

“I think visual art is something I have to use to denounce what’s not working, or to talk about what is positive, in society.”

The protests were triggered by the arrest of a popular opposition leader, but gathered pace on a wave of anger over economic inequality that has widened during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands took to the streets, hurling rocks at security forces, who opened fire on protesters.

Some worry Senegal’s President Macky Sall will try to extend his rule beyond the allotted two terms, following a pattern of African leaders such as Ivory Coast’s Alassane Ouattara and Guinea’s Alpha Conde who used constitutional changes to reset their time in power.

Sall has not commented on whether he will seek a third term.

Ba normally keeps his subjects anonymous, so as to focus on themes rather than individuals, but for his next collection he said he might depict Sall.

“Once they’re elected, (heads of state) completely change their discourse. I wanted to talk about that, and that’s why I called this exhibition ‘Anomalies’,” said Ba.

Four of the 12 paintings in the series deal with the coronavirus pandemic, conveying confusion and entrapment with the use of interlacing shapes and footprints.

COVID-19 exposed inequality and corruption in Africa, Ba said, and forced even the wealthy to rely on the ill-equipped public health services that they can normally afford to escape.

“Nobody could take planes to get treatment in Europe or the United States, and that was really great, because for once people realized that in their own hospitals there was nothing.” (Additional reporting by Cooper Inveen Editing by Edward McAllister and Alexandra Hudson)

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