“Onah,” or the Idealism of Black Art

To digitally mark the holidays in a meaningful way, the National Arts Centre is once again sharing Jimmy Baptiste’s Onah on the Kipnes Lantern, helping to light up the Nation’s Capital at this wintry time of year. The Haitian-Canadian artist’s work was originally commissioned by the NAC for Black History Month 2023.

Best known as a graffiti and muralist artist, Jimmy Baptiste has also been working with youth for nearly 20 years on mural projects in Montréal, in Ottawa and elsewhere in Canada. The 43-year-old community engaged artist also travels once a year to First Nations communities to work with them on various art projects.

We spoke with Jimmy Baptiste about his work, his vision of art, and the importance of representation.

Q. : Your work of art is an explosion of colours, a mixture of styles, where everything blends together harmoniously. How would you describe it?

Jimmy Baptiste: Onah is really the epitome of what I’d like to create in the future. A mixture of Afro, black, futuristic, and surrealist art with a touch of realism, and that also shows my graffiti influence. I had this vision of a character with dreads and intertwining mechanical wires, wearing futuristic glasses. And because I love nature, I added elements like birds and butterflies landing on it. It creates a certain balance. As for the colours, I used the ones that are omnipresent in African linens: green, yellow, pink. And I tried to picture it on a large surface. That’s why it’s very colourful and dynamic.

Q.: The representation of minorities is a recurring theme in your work. What message are you sending that way?

J. B.: For the past few years, I’ve focused on having a significant representation of Afro and Black artists or characters in my work. And the message I often convey is the importance of representation and identity. I paint a lot of murals in Ottawa, and every time people of colour come by they say, “Thank you for considering representation! Thank you for putting us in places where we can see ourselves as big, beautiful and important.” I also hope to inspire and encourage young people or even other artists to have their work displayed on the walls of the NAC, and not to be afraid to show their Blackness. Let’s show it!

Q.: Your work is highly detailed: every time we look at it, we discover new elements. Can you tell us more about how you work with that level of detail?

J. B.: I love detail! But I have to rein myself in, because I could add more. I set myself a restricted colour palette, and I play with different shades of those colours for impact. In this particular work, I emphasized the face, the hands and the birds. Those are the elements that have the most detail and colour. The rest have simpler colours, to allow those central elements to stand out. I also do a lot of visual research to understand how the various threads intertwine before I add them to my composition.

Q.: What are your artistic influences?

J. B.: I’ve always been fascinated by robots and manga. And for the past few years, I’ve been focusing on creating work inspired by the Afrofuturist movement—a movement that’s driving the conversation around the idealism of Black art. Before, what you often saw were works with references to slavery or more negative narratives. But we have a more futuristic vision, a vision where we incorporate technological elements. I studied art, especially European art, and that was my influence until my early thirties. But at that point I thought, “I love these artists, but I want to paint Black!”

Q.: How does it feel to see your work shining on the Kipnes Lantern at the NAC in the heart of Ottawa during Black History Month?

J. B.: I think seeing a piece like this, and on such a large scale, will make people and the Black community proud. Being there for Black History Month is also a good way to present my work so that people can associate me with both my mural style and my more personal style.

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