Playing Chess

As part of Black History Month, we invited artist Baba, Professero Babalascar, who recently won a Bethlem Gallery Founders Award Prize, into Bethlem Gallery to talk to us about his work and inspirations.

Tell us about your recent artwork since lockdown

I have been doing some art, more like in sketchbooks and I’ve been doing some paintings but after a couple months I’ve been losing motivation…I got lazy…I got artist block… The art helped me – it was sort of therapeutic. You know what I’ve been going through if you look at my art. It is a way to, you know, show your emotions. I do art in class – it’s been pushing me to do more writing and storytelling myself.

You said you’ve been making a lot of music too?

Yeah it’s another coping mechanism… The music I was making was from all different types of stuff – reggae, drill, country, rock, metal dubstar, all sorts of stuff, even folk. It was really nice…experimental. I like being all over the place with my craft.

Is that how you approach your visual art?


This sketchbook, I’ve been doing all sorts of different stuff, and doing different ways of doing different inks and stencils, using colour, shading. I’ve been asking how can I expand my portfolio. It was really quite enjoyable. Some things I do can be abstract, then realistic. I’ve been learning about the elements of design. It tells you what made the artists do what they are doing. Why do we do what we do – sometimes art can be subconscious, sometimes it can be mathematical. I learnt about that at college, and I have been using all that to experiment, out of the box, which is still, like, my style.

I love patterns. Patterns are everywhere – walls, sheets. I like the patterns on clothing too. I like wearing dark clothing – It represents who I am as an individual and how I operate – the mood swings, my personality. I use a lot of designs and patterns to represent myself… In society people, like, copy and paste with everything. It’s rare to see someone wear something different. Like what I am wearing now – its psychedelic, psychedelica. [A jump suit in bright colours.] I like things, colours in nature. Beautiful and pretty.

people playing chess

Rastaman playing chess, Baba

For this conversation you said that you wanted to discuss the medieval painting of Moorish chess players.

Well, to be honest, the first time I discovered that painting was when I did the painting of the two Rasta men playing chess, with observers. I showed it to my family, my parents. My mum said it looks familiar and asked have you seen this painting? I hadn’t seen that one.I’d seen Moorish paintings but none of anyone playing chess. So my family were quite shocked that I did one with the table too – sort of in the exact same layout as the one from hundreds of years ago.

…It was like a coincidence but I am deep with spirituality and metaphysics because of my upbringing, and the Moorish picture was going to have a meaning. It shows African history. Previous to slavery it shows that we did a lot of great things as a people. It gives you that pride and that sense of like self respect. Not about chains and shackles. It shows that you did like make a huge contribution to the planet. It makes you feel happy.

I make my paintings be self aware. I like doing art that makes people think. That tells a story. That’s why I chose this painting. It has a story behind it.

A depiction of Moorish noblemen from folio 22r of Alfonso X’s Book of Chess. As seen

When you did your painting of the chess players, what made you do that?

It was because of my interest in chess, I found it was a really interesting game. It is like an exercise of mind. Its strategy and competition as well. I am Rastafarian so brought up like that. I put two worlds together, because chess can be like a rich people’s game or like for old people, and Rastafarians just do reggae… so I put different worlds of people and how they see these things, and I put them together. To show it is not a stereotype. I make things up outside of society’s boundaries. Anyone is capable of handling things, no matter their condition or disabilities, so that’s what I did when I was painting that. I just wanted to do something that no one has seen before, and it’s going to represent my tradition, my people, while showing a board game that I love to play.

How did you feel when you had an idea to paint chess players and your parents said it has been done?

I see it an ancestral thing of expressing different things – like a possession. I did something that someone did way hundreds of years ago. The way it was, it looked the same. I felt like it was ancestors from the past expressing themselves through my way of doing it. I wasn’t surprised. It was nice that it was there before. I brought it back to the surface – it’s more modernised, more recent. Like history repeating itself again.

Is there another artist you want to mention?

Stephen Wiltshire. He has a photographic memory – he scans his surroundings and can draw it.

I remember learning about him when I was doing my art. He’s from London.

Did he change anything about your work?

He didn’t change what I did, but he gave me that thing of motivation or drive. If he can do it what is stopping you as well? The sky is the limit, innit. It gives you a boost – gives you a drive to continue with your passion. If like, because of racial tension, people say you shouldn’t be doing that because most of your people don’t do that. But then we see people like him out there, the same race, and we see that it’s not impossible. It’s a good influence. It’s good to see people like him. Nothing’s stopping me. Nothing stopped him and look where he is now. He is a good role model.

Is there anything else you want to let people know about?

Just advice. Nothing’s stopping you – Don’t let other people’s opinions stop you doing what you love. As long as it makes you happy and isn’t hurting anybody, why stop? That is my advice for people my age, my race, my mental condition as well. If I can go through the journey, I can be a role model for other people to do the same thing. Show the world your creativity. Do your passion, your craft.


Baba’s instagram: @professerobabalascar