Editor’s Note: This article has been made in collaboration with the MA Arts & Culture Concentration at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
The new piece presented by the artist Omar Ba, “Clin d’œil Anta Diop – A continent in search of its history” (2017) comprises 160 cardboard boxes stacked 11 feet high and covering almost the entire east wall of the ground floor gallery of the French Institute Alliance Française (FIAF) in Manhattan. The fragile and light material contrasts openly with the subject it carries: the history of Africa’s status as a source of human ancestry. Ba’s piece was selected to inaugurate the 15th edition of FIAF Crossing the Line Festival where, at its opening reception, smartly dressed guests gathered over glasses of Pommery to admire a book on historian Cheikh Anta Diop’s efforts to break down the Eurocentric history of civilizations.
“Clin d’œil” features a man, a woman and a boy who walk towards us on a soft and feathery quilted floor. Standing with them Diop’s anthropological argument that the highly respected original kingdoms of ancient Egypt were, in fact, all-African civilizations, are the disembodied idol heads of ancient Egyptian pharaohs and queens: Sesostris, Tiyi, Taharqa, Tutmose (Thoutmosis), Hatshepsut . Behind them, in the receding horizon, familiar Western buildings: the Eiffel Tower, Saint Petersburg. St. Basil’s Cathedral, Big Ben – landmarks of countries that ignored Africa’s dominant role in human history. Moreover, Diop’s African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality is the subject of a timely new exhibition at the Met, several streets north of the FIAF gallery, which (finally) showcases African art alongside the museum’s famous collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts. (The Met’s sub-Saharan African art galleries – previously significantly smaller than its prized Egyptian section – are currently closed for refurbishment.)
Against an all-black layout of the world map, Ba’s white textures, signature cerulean blues, and bold, heritage-patterned textiles allude – like an archive – to a rich history of arts, crafts and of luxurious dress that drapes softly against the colorless stone buildings and empty lands far behind them. The day after the FIAF opened, I visited Location of the Templon Gallery in New York, where Ba’s works also made up the inaugural exhibition, and saw that this fluid, feather-like texture is a frequent feature, if not an enveloping backdrop, in most of his large portraits. It looks pretty and cozy, a warm and welcoming paradise masking sadness and loss. In Templon, the exhibition of Ba Ground law — Right to dream exhibit paintings that continue this emphasis and immersion of patterns and soft textiles, into which international nation-state flags are woven and against which contrast elements of industry and modernity: big black pipes, motorbikes, railroads. iron.
Hands and feet are often simply underlined, with the black background alluding to skin tones, seemingly emphasizing how all human history is – and stems from, and should have been – African history, and therefore rooted in blackness (the FIAF gallery was painted all black to better showcase the work). Hales Gallery, which has hosted two solo exhibitions for Ba, explains how Ba aims to “weave a thread between“African and European Culture. It presents people who both form and are formed by the substance of the work, a technique which, ironically, also makes them invisible. A nod to Diop’s anthropological cartography of pervasive Africanness in human history despite the historical exclusion and exploitation of black people.
The faces in “Wink” are filled in, but only with a cluster of tiny circles. Are these the atoms that make up all life on Earth – this concept of how we are all interconnected energy? Or do these sparkling water-like bubbles of disconnected translucency convey a forgotten and fragmented identity? They are tenuous, like the tower of boxes.
On these faces I see melancholy and audacity, stubbornness and fatigue. The woman’s mouth parted slightly in disbelief, her eyebrows half-raised in skepticism as she stares ahead, seeking her place. The calmer man is wrapped in his textiles, his memories knotted all he has, many others having been taken from him. He seems aware of his worth, just waiting for the world to notice him. In the center of the work, the boy holds his head high, like a legitimate young king but wearing no armor or weapons, proudly wearing only soft patterned shorts, a T-shirt and sandals.
For the curators of Crossing the Line, Ba’s work suggests a “totally contemporary artistic message.” Indeed, because “Clin d’œil” is removable. The work arrived flat from Hales Galleryrequiring folding and gluing together in what must have looked like an unboxing of African history – its collage-like juxtapositions of full-bodied brushstrokes against thin sketches, large-scale against minute details, and its fearless transcultural face to an unstable world.