With a dozen major exhibitions currently paying tribute to black artists around the world, Sotheby’s is dedicating this month of February to African (or African-origin) artists. Observing the market enthusiasm (and commensurate price inflation) for a whole new generation of these artists, Artprice looks this week at Omar Ba, whose prices seem to have stabilized on the auction market.
Grandson of a Senegalese Sharpshooter (famous French army regiment), Omar BA spent most of his time as a child drawing, but his parents pushed him towards mechanics, a field in which he trained without passion for three years. Finally qualifying for Dakar’s School of Fine Arts, Ba progressed but does not appear to have blossomed artistically until he found himself in a radically different environment, at Geneva University of Art and Design in Switzerland (2003). After a few difficult years, he was spotted by Guy Bartschi during the Les Urbaines de Lausanne festival in 2009.
Conquering Western collectors
Ba’s profile began to emerge on the Swiss art scene at the end of the 2000s. Having been supported by Guy Bärtschi, he gained the backing of the Parisian gallerist Anne de Villepoix and then joined the Templon gallery (Paris and Brussels), which devoted a first solo show to his work in 2016. He quickly became the darling of French and Brussels collectors, especially since Daniel Templon presented his work at major international fairs. Very noticed at the Paris FIAC in 2019, the critics talked about “new talent”… a “fabulous colorist”.
Today, Omar Ba shares his life and his work between Geneva and Dakar with a studio in each city. His regular trips to Africa are essential to him – as he says – so that the images do not fade… so they do not lose their force in his painting. His painting is mixed and complex, sometimes on corrugated cardboard or kraft paper, employing a variety of techniques including gouache, ink, acrylic, oil and pencil. Poetic and enigmatic, his works have a certain ornamental focus with a lot of work on color and the repetition of forms in pictorial patterns that emerge from the black background from which he always starts in order “to see his work better”. His iconography mobilizes both personal metaphors and ancestral references, while questioning Africa’s place in the world. It deals with political subjects, current events in the world, the exploitation of nature, war, terrorism, politicians, and ultimately, relationships of power and domination.
Recently exhibited at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (2019) and at the Pompidou Center in Paris (2020), Omar Ba is today considered one of the most important artists of the African scene. His works have joined a number of major museum collections, including that of the Louis Vuitton Foundation for Contemporary Art and the permanent collection of the Abu Dhabi Louvre (painting on corrugated cardboard, Repaire2016).
In 2014, his works were presented at the Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition in London as well as at the Dakar Biennale. In October of that year, Piasa (in Paris) offered one of his works as an auction debut in a sale dedicated to Contemporary African Art. Although large and impressive (203 x 150 cm), the work Au royaume des Pyromanes remained unsold against a low estimate of $20,000.
Four years later, prices have doubled in galleries, so that paintings previously offered around $20,000 now fetch $40,000. Today, demand for the artist’s work is intense and some of his paintings have reached beyond $50,000. Naturally, his secondary market prices have more or less synched with his gallery prices and, in June 2020, Piasa sold a superb canvas, This Way is Not Easy 2 (2011), for the equivalent of $49,800. Omar Ba’s ambition of leaving his mark on art history and seeing his work (and that of other African artists) being valued at more or less the same level as the work of recognised Western artists is at last beginning to materialize. However, his secondary market appears to have reached a plateau, unlike those of other African artists, whose subjects seem more desirable to major collectors. Last year, three out of five works by Omar Ba presented at failed to sell despite estimates sometimes auction lower than $10,000 (for drawings). Perhaps lacking the kind of international exposure collectors crave, or perhaps simply not sufficiently promoted in the auction sphere, there are currently real opportunities to acquire this important artist at reasonable prices.
Part of this article appeared in Diptyk magazine