In “Diaspora,” a series of twelve impressive self-portraits inspired in part by European paintings, Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop embodies Africans that were notable historical figures in Europe in the colonial era. In the photo above, he poses as Jean-Baptiste Belley, who lived 46 years in what was then called Cap-Français (now Cap Haitien) in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. After buying his freedom with his own savings, he fought in the Haitian Revolution and later became the first black deputy to take a seat in the French National Convention. Belley returned to Saint-Domingue with Charles Leclerc’s expedition of 1802 as an officer of gendarmes, but he was arrested and imprisoned until his death in 1805. [The photo above is based on a well-known painting (see below) of Belley by French painter Anne-Louis Girodet.]
In “Omar Victor Diop dans la peau d’un Noir,” Sabine Cessou writes: “Who remembers Jean-Baptiste Belley, born in 1746 in Gorée, Senegal, sold into slavery in the French Antilles, who arrived in France in full revolution, became a member of the Convention and the Council of Five Hundred? Or Angelo Soliman, abducted as a child from present-day Nigeria, brought into slavery in Europe where he became a domestic servant, a mathematician, a philosopher, and confidant of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, Mozart, and Haydn? After his death in 1796, he was exhibited like a luxurious stuffed animal and exhibited as a decoration in an imperial hall until 1848, the year of the abolition of slavery.”
Omar Victor Diop’s work was exhibited at the Grand Palais last month (November 13-16, 2014), represented by Galerie André Magnin. I am hoping that this exhibition will travel to the United States sometime soon.
Cultural curator Raquel Wilson writes:
Identity and discovery–at both the collective and personal levels–are themes in the forefront of Omar Victor Diop’s Project Diaspora. A journey through time, the photographic series delves into and exposes less spoken narratives of the role of Africans out of Africa. With this body of work, Diop challenges us to rethink our own ideas of history and gives answer to his ongoing, internal dialogue of who he is as artist and person.
Starting his research during a four month residency in Màlaga, Spain, where he was immersed in the reality of being a stranger, Diop has focused this first installment on Europe during the 15th through 19th centuries. Inspired by the many baroque artworks created during this time, he considers this period as an awakening of an intense (and previously nonexistent) era of interaction between Africa and the rest of the world. Using portraits of notable Africans in European history as his inspiration, Diop pits their life-journeys and legacies with those of his own, and further defining his intrigue of the singular destinies of travellers and those in alien environments.
Choosing, for the first time, to use himself as object in his artwork, he has delved into the realities of being both narrator and character, forcing him to face his insecurities head on, and uses references to sport, football in particular, to show the duality of living a life of glory and recognition, while facing the challenges of being “other”. Paradoxes he finds are shared between modern day footballers in Europe and the men of the original portraits depicted in his self-portraits.
With plans to widen Project Diaspora’s scope to Asia, the Americas and Middle East, Diop hopes his project lends to the current debates, accusations and impacts of migration and immigration, and reshapes thoughts on the histories of Africans discovering the world.
For the original article by Sabine Cessou (in French), see http://www.liberation.fr/photographie/2014/11/10/omar-victor-diop-dans-la-peau-d-un-noir_1140450
For more on the project, see http://www.omarviktor.com/#!project-diaspora/ca7g
See the artist’s page at http://www.omarviktor.com/