Artist Omar Victor Diop Revives African Diasporic Histories

Omar Victor Diop at the opening of ReSignifications, May 2015

Omar Victor Diop at the opening of ReSignifications, May 2015

For Senegalese photographer and conceptual artist Omar Victor Diop, photography enables an honest exploration of collective and personal identity. In his work, Diop tackles the complexity and diversity of African diasporic histories, societies, lifestyles and cultures.

In the critically acclaimed Project Diaspora (2014), Diop shot a series of twelve self-portraits, inspired by paintings of African icons from the 15th through 19th centuries. From princes to freed slaves, the series honors the diversity of African legacies, erased from European history. In The Studio of Vanities (2015), he depicts a new generation of African artists, creatives and entrepreneurs.

I first met Omar in Florence, Italy, at the sixth annual convening of Black Portraitures, a series of conferences that brings together scholars and artists to reflect on the portrayals of the black body. I was on assignment as a photographer for the event proceedings and receptions, which were held at both Villa La Pietra and Odeon Firenze. Diop's work was also featured in ReSignifications, the multi-media art exhibition associated with the conference. I was immediately drawn to Omar's portraits, which pop with color and character. The artist himself is as wildly animated as his work: he tells the stories behind his photographs with firm conviction, fiery eyes and a megawatt smile.

This interview took place in February 2016, at a small gallery in the West Village, New York. 

What would you say is the intent behind your artwork?

The purpose behind every one of my portraits is to offer a more balanced representation of what it means to be young and African, or Africa-based. For example, in Studio of Vanities, I wanted to document my urban West African context, which is made up of young creatives and artists. I made sure I had a mix of artists, art curators and active folks who are both black and white. It’s a very diverse mix. This gives you an idea of the Africa that no one talks about. It’s urban, active and very diverse. 

Growing up, how was your perception of race influenced by the kind of images you were exposed to?

Growing up, I was fascinated by both African American and French culture. Senegal was French territory until 1960. So, in my living room at home, I watched a lot of French movies and television programs. My relationship with African American visual culture was a bit weirder. I remember watching Michael Jackson’s music video Black or White for the first time. You see him dancing around all over the world, from New York to Moscow. Then he jumps to Africa and all of a sudden he’s in the bush surrounded by African warriors hunting lions with sticks. I remember feeling so confused. The first time I had seen a lion was at the zoo in Paris! It was great to be exposed to all sorts of imagery and influences, but that exposure also made me feel misunderstood or misrepresented. Photography gave me the opportunity to try and balance this perspective or depiction of Africa.

Can you talk about Project Diaspora. Who are these notable African men you personified? What lost histories do they represent?

The idea for Project Diaspora came to me when I was in residency in Malaga, in the south of Spain, which is a historical point of contact between African civilizations and the European world. I was drawn to researching examples of representations of black skins in classical paintings, because I am fascinated by the work of classical painters such as Diego Velasquez. The research was technical at first: I really wanted to see how the great masters represented blackness.

That’s how I came across a few portraits I had never seen before. I wanted to know who these characters were, and I began to unveil very interesting personal stories. Some of these men were taken as slaves or born into slavery, while others had luckier destinies and ended up leading more prestigious lives. Take the example of John Baptiste Belley. I discovered that he was sent to the West Indies as a slave. While there, he bought his freedom and many years later he joined the French Revolution. Ultimately, he became one of founding members of the first French Parliament. We owe him this modern definition of what a republic is, what a democracy is. So, why had it taken me 35 years to find out about him? The only times where Africans are mentioned is when slavery is brought up, but we never talk about the mutual influences and the role some Africans played in the highest layers of European societies.

I felt that I needed to participate in this exercise of remembrance. It needed to come from within. I needed to make a sacrifice of my own and invest something. So, I decided to go on the other side of the camera, and shoot a series of self-portraits. It was like a pilgrimage. I brought these stories to life with the intention of sharing them, not only with my people, but to the whole of humanity. That was the intent behind Diaspora. 

John Baptiste Belley, Project Diaspora   ©   Omar Victor Diop

John Baptiste Belley, Project Diaspora © Omar Victor Diop

Your work involves many visual references to African history and diaspora. How do you seek to bridge the gap between past and present, to capture something contemporary?

For me, the past and present are not different things. Elements of the past are the basis of any present reflection. In my case, the national heritage of Senegal is extremely important in my work. I always start from a finding or discovery. The past is my raw material.

I believe that art and photography is a conversation. Every piece of artwork put out is like a phrase in an eternal conversation. Whatever is put out there was produced in the past, and it’s meant to be confirmed, challenged or strengthened. I hope that my work will continue to be challenged by viewers with different perspectives. That’s the point, to further this conversation.

How do you think your work relates to or resonates with American racial history?

There is a lot of love between African Americans and Africans, but we don’t really know each other. We hold very fanaticized views of each other. Africa is the Motherland. America is the country of pop stars and our cultural icons. But we, Africans, don’t really understand what the African American experience is within the continent, and this goes both ways. What does it mean to be African and live in Dakar? Very few African Americans know. With portraits of African artists who live in Africa, I am trying to enable this connection.