By Matt Harrison
“It looks pretty sick at night.” That’s how Wakefield artist Jimmy Baptiste describes looking up at his five-storey animated creation, “Onah,” a portrait of a Black character, which is the centrepiece of the National Arts Centre’s Black History Month celebrations.
The artwork was specifically commissioned by the NAC for the month of February and is not only being displayed day and night on the Kipnes Lantern – an LED architectural feature of the NAC’s building – for all passersby to see, but it’s also being used for the NAC’s cross-promotional purposes during this celebratory month.
“As a Black artist, representation matters, and to have a strong image of a Black character in a predominant place, for me is very empowering. I hope it’s going to be able to inspire other Black artists to reach high and don’t put any limits to their own creativity or potential achievements in life,” Baptiste says about being chosen by the NAC.
The Wakefield artist was specifically chosen for this signature commission.
“I felt pretty honoured,” he says. “This was a pretty big opportunity and I didn’t really know how big it was until it was done,” Baptiste expresses about an artwork that is truly enormous — the Kipnes Lantern display is five-storeys tall.
The NAC describes “Onah” as Afrofuturist, a term used to describe the intersection of science fiction, history and fantasy, to explore the African-American experience.
Baptiste says he selected the name “Onah” because he just liked how the letters sounded.
But, when it comes to describing his own work, Baptiste talks about “Onah” as a mixture of graffiti – “I’m a graffiti artist at heart,” he points out – with manga, which is a Japanese form of comics, along with American cartoon and tattoo influences.
He adds that he wanted to design something that, knowing where it would be exhibited, would have a strong, visual impact — as it does, being so prominently displayed in Ottawa. When asked about the impact it’s already had, he says that he’s been tagged in social media by some who have described his artwork as “impactful,” “beautiful,” and “a gem to the city.”
“But it also describes my own style,” Baptiste says about the digital portrait, which includes a love of character, of portraiture, as well as his interest in robots and the cyberpunk genre — “humans and robots merging — something I’ve always liked as a kid,” he adds.
“I also wanted to create something that would merge Black art, Black features, and some characteristics that are close to me – dreads – with the African ethnography, along with a touch of sensibility and nature,” he explains about the inclusion of animated elements such as birds and butterflies to make the artwork “even more dynamic.”
The piece is on display until the end of the month, but will be used by the NAC throughout the year for other promotional purposes, the Wakefield artist explains.
Baptiste moved to the village about five years ago and lives on Rockhurst with his partner, Katie Birks, and two young children.
“The Wakefield community has been amazing to me. People are super nice, super welcoming. There’s a lot of generations of family that live here that creates a really strong sense of community and a strong sense of family. And that’s been a strong inspiration for me, creatively,” he says.
In turn, Baptiste has worked with many of the region’s youth in schools, including St. Mike’s in Low, to create murals of varying themes and styles. In the spring, he says he’ll be working with an Indigenous artist from the region to create a mural with Chelsea Elementary students.
“Kids help me come up with the themes and visuals, and are part of the painting process. It’s a creative safe-space and a cool art activity,” he says, adding that the kids often respond really well because he says he gives a lot of space for the students to express themselves and to be part of the entire experience.
He adds that graffiti is often an element of the murals and he’s happy that this form of art, which he’s long appreciated, is being validated by schools.
Beyond his own work, he expresses a love for what Place des Artistes de Farrellton (PAF-FAS) has been doing, which, “really has the artists at heart,” he says, about the non-profit artist collective.
He gives a shout out to PAF-FAS’ Geneviève Cloutier and her work in particular to involve young people in art.
He explains that for youth, who are far from the city, Wakefield can be devoid of activities for them, in spite of how great a place the village can be, and that art gives them another opportunity to be creative and express themselves.