Libasse KA: 'Art saves me from clichés'

Tom Peeters
© Ivan Put | Libasse KA: “Many black artists paint mainly black portraits. It sells better. But I have trouble with art without depth.”

A young Afrodescendant painter who talks about Mondriaan and Spinoza and whose work is not conspicuously populated by black figures. According to those who know, Libasse KA could go far.

El Hadj Libasse Ka (22) – nom de plume Libasse KA – spent the first half of his life in Senegal, the second half in Belgium. Along with his talent, energy and swagger, this split has now given him his first solo show in Wetsi Art Gallery, the place to be for Afrodescendant art in Brussels.

Curator Luk Lambrecht is already lyrical about this young promise. “I was tipped off by the painter Jan Van Imschoot, who had discovered him through his Instagram account and looked him up at Anne Wetsi Mpoma's gallery, where he had a studio.” Lambrecht was supposed to put together a show with Afrodescendant artists for CC Strombeek together with the gallery owner, but that fell through after the both abrupt and controversial resignation of the curator. Wetsi promptly invited him to Studio CityGate in Anderlecht and he immediately thought of Libasse KA.

“Other exhibitions at Anne's are often militant and very African, but with Libasse, his origins are not spread thick in his art,” says Lambrecht. “Have you seen that beautiful abstract painting? Nobody realises that it was made by someone who thinks or acts from a different culture. Then Libasse hangs it in the lion's den, where he is warned not to 'stray too far from the African soul.' Amazing!”

“It's only human that you absorb influences everywhere,” Libasse KA responds, who was allowed to highlight his abilities as an artistic sponge and free spirit at his maiden exhibition. “In the art world, especially today, you are quickly pushed into the black artist's box. I try not to complain about that, but it does affect me. When I mention the name Philippe Vandenberg, the artist, in a gallery, people are surprised. That is like asking: 'How come you speak Dutch so fluently?' To me, that is irrelevant. Art saves me from all those clichés. I can sing Flemish popular songs, but I am still Senegalese. My big brother is still living in my native country. Just like my work, I float somewhere in between.”

When I paint, I succumb to myself. If you are yourself, your work ends up coherent anyway

Libasse KA

Senegal and Spinoza
The self-portrait that Libasse KA drew on a gallery wall in one day and one night shows a timeline with 2010 as its hinge. In that year, he lost his mother in Senegal. A little later, he would move in with his father, who lived in Asse, the Flemish municipality just North-West of Brussels. “Here I make the link between my rational and mystical self. In the tradition of Spinoza, I investigate what we have no control over. I used to think that I had chosen the secondary art school of Sint-Lukas myself, but it was the only Flemish school within twenty minutes from Asse, so no real choice.”

The young artist then went to school at La Cambre and worked briefly at a call centre, but that “was only killing time.” Now he wants to paint. His work is influenced by the geometric figures of Mondriaan and the Ghent painter Mario De Brabandere, whom he got to know in Galerie De Ziener in Asse. “Simple things that make you feel something and trigger your eyes with their rhythms and colours,” he says. “I find poetry in them. These days, many black artists paint mainly black portraits. It sells better because it is politically correct. But I have trouble with art without depth. With me it is never black and white.”

“What do people think of when I, as a black person, draw a dark swimmer?” he suddenly looks at us questioningly. Well – cliché – a refugee who fell out of a crowded boat in the Mediterranean? “Voilà, while I grew up by the sea and always thought swimming was super cool!” The drummer he painted refers to rhythmics, and to Miles Davis. He once said that when black jazz musicians put on white suits they are making a statement. “You can't dismiss music like that as wild or naive. It has been thought through!”

He does not deny his roots, but he does not make a fetish of them either. He has an uncontaminated energy that you don’t often find at art school

Curator Luk Lambrecht

Libasse KA always shows the link to reality through detours. Two walls of his exhibition are painted with a mixture of pigment and mint tea, a reference to his childhood in his native country. The canvas on which “Gold Fever” shines under a geometric figure in block letters is a subtle criticism of the monetary system that still maintains Western supremacy in some former French colonies. “I don't want to write sentences with full stops, but with commas, question marks and impediments. I don't feel like I am deciding anything when I paint. I succumb to myself. If you are yourself, your work ends up coherent anyway.”

He always detested drawing on the first page of his sketchbook, but after that he was off. “It's the same in life: you take one step and automatically learn to take the second. There is Spinoza again. Choices are limited, especially by who you are. Walter Swennen can make a million Walter Swennens, even his prison is Walter Swennen. That applies to me and to everyone. That is why I say painting saves me. It makes me question the essence.”

Creative thinking, drawing and making connections was in it from childhood. “My father and my grandmother also drew. In Senegal, I used sweet wrappers to make little men. If I found a stone, it became a world. If it had a hole, it was a cave in which a whole people could live. I have always hated Lego. I didn't like the idea of building, step by step, a castle that was already finished. Give me PlayMais instead. When I arrived in Belgium after my mother's death, I was constantly confronted with cultural differences. But when I became interested in Greek antiquity, my father made me realise how similar those stories were to our own, and to ancient Hindu texts from the Vedas. That is how I came to realise that everything is interlinked.”

In Senegal, I used sweet wrappers to make little men. If I found a stone, it became a world. If it had a hole, it was a cave in which a whole people could live

Libasse KA

The curator Luk Lambrecht says that the exhibition rightly is called “The Reality of a Reflection” (and not “A Reflection of the Reality”) and he would like to continue to support the young painter. “Libasse's art is very well grounded in content. He thinks both narratively and abstractly, knows the Western canons and his use of colour is distinctive. He does not deny his roots, but he does not make a fetish of them either. He has an uncontaminated energy that you don't often find at art school.”

In the meantime, Wetsi's offstream gallery appears to be the ideal launch pad. “A small utopia,” Lambrecht calls the expo. “We like to talk about inclusion in our white bastions and invite artists of colour to come and do their thing. But this is something else. It is diametrically opposed to what people expect from an exhibition space. We do not always stick to the ideology of the art market. Unlike in white cultural temples, you don't only see the better-off middle class either.”

This was already evident at the opening, which attracted a diverse audience. In addition to the works, visitors could buy Libasse KA dates, as a criticism of a (bitcoin) society that creates currency with the sole motive of making money. Maria Gilissen, Marcel Broodthaers's widow, liked the witticism and entrepreneurial spirit and bought 100 euros worth of seeds, which the artist will use to buy painting materials and dream on. Walking from the gallery to the Brussels-Midi, he tells us that S.M.A.K. director Philippe Van Cauteren confided in him that he could become the new Luc Tuymans.

> 6/6, Wetsi Art Gallery,

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