“I have an aversion to the traditional idea of beauty”: Amanda Ba on her purposefully unsettling paintings
The artist – based between London and New York – also gives us an insight into how they want their work to make us deconstruct our relationship with animals.
- Olivia Hingley
- 6 April 2022
So brilliantly realised and deeply conceptualised, Amanda Ba’s paintings are both an aesthetic and theoretical marvel. Depicting various bodies, dogs and surreal scenes, purposeful in their “unsettling” nature, Amanda has no interest in creating conventionally attractive, comfortable or superficial work. “I have an aversion to the traditional idea of beauty”, the artist explains, “especially as it’s tied in with heteronormative conceptions of femininity and sexuality. The unsettlement operates as subversion.”
Forming the basis of Amanda’s inspiration is her interest in critical queer and race thoery. Citing such figures as Ien Ang, Sadiya Hartman, Mel Chen and Donna Haraway among many others, Amanda explains that “their writing often includes wonderful metaphors and philosophical systems that I derive into visual ideas”. This critical basis, the artist further expands, is also where she sees the surreal quality of her work as arising from. “A lot of critical theory is grounded in elsewheres, and the belief in the possibility of alternate sociopolitical systems than the ones we currently live in”, she explains, “That prompts me to imbue a surreal quality in my work, because I believe in these elsewheres.”
Born in Ohio but raised in Hefei, the artist lived in China with her grandparents between the ages of 1-5 before moving back to Columbus, Ohio. Having always had a passion for drawing it was at the age of 12 that Amanda became immersed the online arts platform Deviantart and found herself learning a lot about anatomy, colouring and broadly honing her technical skills. It was then at the age of 15 that Amanda completed her first oil painting, upon which her high school art teacher encouraged her to enter local competitions and she began to explore the work of Lucien Freud and Alice Neel. But, the artist is keen to impress, “my real origins were online communities, before I ever studied any of the art history canon”.
It is Amanda’s interest in and reading around critical queer and race theory – specifically the works of Mel Chen and and Donna Haraway – that inspired her recent, unnamed series. Focussing on Mel Chen’s theories of ‘animacy’, which Chen draws away from the realm of linguistics and instead suggests to be “just as applicable in queer and race relations, seeing as ‘dehumanising insults hinge of the salient invocation of the nonhuman animal’.” Emulating this through the series, Amanda depicts recurring red women and red dogs, between whom she presents shifting relationship dynamics in an attempt to deconstruct the owner/owned hierarchy. In some, the women and dog are wrapped in a loving embrace, in others they growl at one another, seemingly locked in a battle of wills.
In unison, it was Donna Haraway’s theorising in The Companionship Species Manifesto that helped to “guide” Amanda’s paintings. Explaining that Haraway made a case for “reevaluating our relationship with our worldly cohabitants” – namely that their lives shouldn't depend upon their intimacy with humans – Amanda also sought to explore the idea that “it is about the implosion of nature and culture in the joint lives of dogs and people, who are bonded in ‘significant otherness’, in all their historical complexity”. The breed of dog depicted throughout – American Bully – is also chosen for its cultural significance, as a symbol of ‘American-ness’ and more broadly, American imperialism. But, conversely, the painter also wants to interact with how mistreated the breed can be; “there is a whole market for supplements for bullies and different ways to increase their muscle mass. I think that this is interesting and relates to so much of Donna Haraway’s writings on dogs”.
Much like the rest of her work, Amanda’s colour choices are also carefully considered. Deeming her trademark red to have to “more emotional associations that any other colour”, including passion, desire, lust, anger and love, the artist also cites its historical connotations, such as rebellion, war, religious devotion, “and of course, communism (think Red Scare)”. “I’m not necessarily appealing to all of these directly every time I use the colour red”, the artist elaborates, “but I think that I (amongst many others) am attracted to red for those reasons”. And, on a more technical level, Amanda explains that her cadmium red oil paint is the only colour she “splurges” on, the rest are “cheap as hell”. The second most occurring colour in Amanda’s work is an intense, neon green. Chosen for its ability to “vibrate” against Amanda’s beloved red, this green adds the perfect contrast, and heightens the unsettling, supernatural essence of the artist’s exceptional work.
Amanda Ba: A Night Away (Yearning) (Copyright © Amanda Ba, 2022)
About the Author
Olivia (she/her) joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in November 2021 and soon became staff writer. A graduate of the University of Edinburgh with a degree in English literature and history, she’s particularly interested in photography, publications and type design.