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Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop challenges monolithic black history

In an exhibition titled “Liberty”, Omar Victor Diop reinterprets defining moments of historical revolt and black struggle in Africa and the diaspora. His images challenge monolithic history-telling of roles such as African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons and members of the Black Panther Party.

Omar Victor Diop was born in Dakar, Senegal in 1980. He developed an interest in photography at an early age and uses it and other art forms, including costume design, styling and creative writing, to showcase the diversity of modern African society.

He received acclaim early in his career and his body of work includes fine art, fashion and portrait photography. One of his most notable projects is “The Studio of Vanities”, a series of staged portraits showing the new faces of urban African art and culture. His technique in the project was inspired by the likes of Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta.

Describing the artist’s other sources of inspiration, a statement put out by the annual Cape Town-based design fair Design Indaba said, “He was nurtured in childhood by Afro-Caribbean literature chef-d’oeuvres, such as Maryse Condé and the characters in her novel Ségou, who transformed from lives of ‘aliens’ to notable figures in society. Diop sees this as a reflection of his own journey, which has sometimes found him in tiny minorities seeking examples of adaptation to new contexts and ways of being.

“He imagines art as the only conversation that will never end and takes inspiration from people who redefine their preferred futures daily, believing it is the only way to truly be exceptional and leave a footprint of value for humankind.”

Diop has been part of several exhibitions, including the Rencontres de Bamako, Mali (2011), Institut Français de Dakar/ Biennale de lʼArt Africain Contemporain de Dakar (2012), Hôtel ONOMO, Dakar at the Maison de l’Afrique, Paris (2013), the Allianza Franceza de Màlaga, Spain (2014) and ReSignifications, Italy (2018).

Read: Mali Twist: The largest ever exhibition of Malian photographer Malick Sidibé’s work


In Project Liberty-Diaspora, Diop features in a series of self-portraits in the roles of African railway workers, French migrants, Second World War soldiers, Jamaican maroons, American Black Panthers and even a 17th-century Abyssinian slave, Ikhlas Khan, who went on to become prime minister of the Bijapur sultanate in modern-day Karnataka, India.

The series is rich in detail and symbolism, commemorating revolts and social justice campaigns and the events that incited them. He takes the audience through the Alabama marches in Washington (Selma 1965), the lesser-known resistance movements against colonial oppression in southeastern Nigeria (Women’s War 1929), which is a historic example of feminist and anti-colonial protest, and the more recent Million Hoodie March in New York, which was triggered by the murder of Trayvon Martin (2012).

He even highlights individuals such as Aline Sitoe Diatta, a celebrated Senegalese figure of identity-based resistance. She apparently became one of the leaders of a tax resistance movement during the Second World War at only 20 years old. She was arrested by the colonial authorities for insurrection and deported to Timbuktu, Mali, where she is said to have died in jail, aged 24.

Other individuals in the series include Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797), a freed slave, writer and prominent activist in London; St Bénédicte de Palermo (1526-1589), a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran church; Prince Dom Nicolau (c.1830-1860), a Congolese African leader; August Sabac El Cher (c.1836-1885), an early Afro-German soldier; and Jean-Baptise Belley (1746-1805), who fought in the French Revolution.

Diop decorates some of these historical figures, especially those of the African Diaspora, with football accessories to explore the paradoxes they share with today’s global stars.

Read: Remembering Malick Sidibé: 1936-2016

He told Autograph magazine that “football is an interesting global phenomenon that for me often reveals where society is in terms of race. When you look at the way that the African football royalty is perceived in Europe, there is an interesting blend of glory, hero worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown onto the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It is that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.”

This solo exhibition is currently on display in the UK.

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