Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop recently gave a talk at The High Museum as part of the exhibition “Making Africa: A Continent of Contemporary Design“. His own series, The Studio of Vanities, is displayed alongside than 120 artists and designers from 22 countries. In his talk he addresses his own medium, portrait photography. Mentioning that this medium was introduced to Senegal by Europeans, he brought attention to how local people established their own photography studios which carried references to European-style photography. These eventually morphed into spaces which were able to reflect local interpretations of imagery and the permanence of memories. Relaying stories of going to Senegalese and other West African homes, Diop said that, “the first thing that is handed to you, after a glass of water, is the family album, with these fabulous portraits from the last century and every special occasion.” With a desire to continue this tradition combined with the necessity to project underrepresented African photography, Diop’s own practice involves the renovation of African studio photography by referencing the past, present and future.
In his 2015 series Project Diaspora we see Diop engage with thematic orientations that visually discuss the exotic other, the African diaspora and paintings serving as archives for constructing historical figures. In an interview for The Guardian he explained that, “It started with me wanting to look at these historical black figures who did not fulfill 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… I wanted to bring these rich historical characters into the current conversation about the African diaspora and contemporary issues around immigration, integration and acceptance.” The photographs he produced were based on 15th-19th century paintings, but also refer to the modern world.
Within this series he also interrogates racial frameworks by integrating objects associated with soccer. According to Diop, the reception received by African soccer players in Europe operates like a pendulum. There is worshiping for their skill and talent, as well as exclusion and derogatory racial interactions. “…The whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way. It’s that kind of paradox I am investigating in the work,” Diop explains. Diop is the character photographed in these images. However, he does not view them as self-portraits. He instead refers to them as metaphorical portraits which make the idea of black identity 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,” explains further.
Blurring linear chronology is a thread that he sews throughout his work. This enables him to make connections between racial conversations as well as debates on blackness, Africanness and the production of images that continue to exist but mutate in various visual and textual forms. This mutation can be subliminal, but more often are quite direct. Diop’s work shares the persistence of questions and experiences related to the above mentioned themes, and his use of portraiture presents a way of involving the self as a real and metaphorical vessel from which to engage with this topics.