Detail of A Moroccan Man (1913) by Omar Victor Diop Courtesy the artist
Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop’s latest work, Project Diaspora, is a series of elaborately staged portraits of himself in various historical guises. These are based on actual paintings from the 15th to the 19th centuries, but also refer to the contemporary world, particularly the world of football. The series is on show at the Arles photography festival (until 20 Sep) where he has been shortlisted for the Discovery award.
How did the Diaspora series come about? It started with me wanting to look at these historical black figures who did not fulfil the usual expectations of the African diaspora insofar as they were educated, stylish and confident, even if some of them were owned by white people and treated as the exotic other. Individuals such as Albert Badin, a Swedish court servant in the 18th century or Juan de Pareja, who was a member of Velázquez’s household in the 17th century. I wanted to bring these rich historical characters into the current conversation about the African diaspora and contemporary issues around immigration, integration and acceptance.
And where does football fit into this conversation? Soccer 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 soccer royalty is perceived in Europe, there is a very interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion. Every so often, you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work.
Would you describe the photographs as self-portraits? I’m not that comfortable with that term, no. They are metaphorical portraits in which the idea of black identity is central. I enjoyed being the subject and the object of the photographs, but, no, they are not self-portraits in the traditional sense. Part of me wants to reinvent the great heritage of elaborate studio photography that we have in Africa – and which every other young African artist is reacting against.