Omar Ba’s State of Emergency

The Senegalese artist's striking pieces are beautiful, but deceptively dark

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The vibrant, precise color combinations and elaborate detailing in artist Omar Ba’s paintings, on show now at London’s Hales Gallery, sometimes make them reminiscent of illustrations for a beautiful children’s book. But as you draw closer, the sinister underside of the images starts to reveal itself—the reflections in a man’s sunglasses depict tanks and a helicopter, the marionette hands that control soldiers and weapons bear the flags of countries including Britain, USA, China, Russia and Israel. Ba’s powerful paintings—nearly all of which were created especially for this first UK solo exhibition—are done in oil, ink, acrylic and pencil on corrugated cardboard and were made during the Senegalese artist’s recent visit to Dakar.

Now based in Geneva, Ba juxtaposes African and Western influences to great effect. His men and mythological creatures wear the uniforms of war generals and inhabit a landscape filled with an almost claustrophobic abundance of vegetation. The patterns and detailing of the surroundings, often inspired by traditional Senegalese ornaments, resemble leaves, as if nature itself might be turning against the warfare. The gallery suggests that the “State of Emergency” in Ba’s paintings is a universal characteristic of the postmodern condition and that the themes he explores are about a general state of affairs, rather than any local issue in particular.

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“The imagery and symbols Omar uses in his work, although aesthetically very much rooted in his heritage and personal development as an artist, reflects on things that are universal, that anyone anywhere can relate to. In a globalized world we are all, in a way, concerned with, or at least aware of, similar things—politically, financially and ethically,” says Sasha Gomenius, Gallery Coordinator at Hales.

For the viewer, Ba’s wry observations are both thought-provoking and upsetting: in “CPI (Cour Pénale Internationale)” a heart (“coeur” in French) is on trial—or perhaps there as a witness—at the CPI, or International Criminal Court, a visual pun that brings home the seriousness as well as the humanity of those proceedings. Ba’s paintings are fascinating, attractive testimonies to the pervasive power of war; at the same time, their symphony of colors and patterns add a sense of redemption.

“State of Emergency” is on until October 4 at Hales Gallery, London.

Images courtesy of Omar Ba