DAKAR – When Senegal erupted in violent protests this month over perceived injustice and inequality, artist Omar Ba approached the issues in his own way using paint on canvas.
“What the youngsters do on the street is the same as what I do in my studio,” said Ba, stepping in black and making footprints on a new canvas in his airy work area outside the capital, Dakar.
Ba, one of Senegal’s best known contemporary artists, has often used his art to make political statements. A current exhibition at the Templon Gallery in Brussels, “Anomalies”, criticizes power-hungry leaders with 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, which is widely viewed as a model for stability in West Africa.
“These are things that I saw on TV but never here,” he told Reuters in an interview.
“I think visual art is something I have to use to denounce what doesn’t work in society or to talk about what is positive.”
The protests were sparked by the arrest of a popular opposition leader, but grew on a wave of anger over economic inequality that had widened during the coronavirus pandemic. Thousands took to the streets and hurled stones at security guards who opened fire on protesters.
Some fear that Senegal’s President Macky Sall will seek to extend his rule beyond the two assigned terms, following the pattern of African leaders like Alassane Ouattara of Ivory Coast and Alpha Conde of Guinea, who used constitutional amendments to reset their term in power.
Sall has not commented on whether he will seek a third term.
Usually Ba keeps his subjects anonymous to focus on subjects rather than individuals, but for his next collection he said he could portray Sall.
“Once they are elected, (heads of state) completely change their discourse. I wanted to talk about it, so I called this exhibition ‘Anomalies’,” Ba said.
Four of the 12 paintings in the series deal with the coronavirus pandemic and convey confusion and inclusion through the use of interlacing shapes and footprints.
COVID-19 exposed inequality and corruption in Africa, Ba said, and even forced the rich to rely on the ill-equipped public health services they can usually afford to flee.
“Nobody could take airplanes to get treatment in Europe or the US and that was really great because, for once, people realized that there was nothing in their own hospitals.”