Omar Victor Diop: a photographic journey through black excellence and resilience

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Frederick Douglass, Omar Victor Diop, Diaspora Series
Frederick Douglass, Omar Victor Diop, Diaspora Series

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr once said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Photographer Omar Victor Diop’s first exhibition in London at Autograph ABP is a visual journey through the long and complex history of the black community’s fight for justice and equality throughout the world.

“Liberty,” one of the two series of photographs exhibited, draws a line that connects through history the often fragmented and multi-faceted struggles for freedom and equality. “Liberty” starts with a portrait of a sister and a brother, Nanny, and Quao.  The picture is a conceptual rendering of what could have been the image of the couple, credited with creating the Maroon Community (a semi-autonomous community of runaway slaves in Jamaica), after fleeing the plantations in the 18th century.  The figure of Nanny is dressed in an all-white ensemble and a matching head-wrap. Quao embodied by the photographer Victor Diop sports a white open top. Both are enveloped in the surrounding vegetation made up with mostly banana and palm leaves and stare defiantly at the viewer.

Further along, “Liberty” pays homage to the Senegalese war veterans of “Thiaroye.” The name of the place where most of these fighters were killed in unclear circumstances by French soldiers, after rebelling because of their unpaid war wages.

Trayvon Martin 2012, Omar Victor Diop, Liberty series
Trayvon Martin 2012, Omar Victor Diop, Liberty series

The series finishes with a poignant image of Trayvon Martin. Here, the African American, mistaken for a criminal and killed is recast as what he was: a defenseless young child, whose body was left lying on a bed of colorful sweets.

The photography series has captured the changing nature of the fight for justice beautifully. What started first as a struggle for freedom has extended to be one for equal treatment and is continuing as a struggle for justice. Chances are, you may not know all the characters embodied in the “Liberty” series, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The accompanying text on the gallery walls, sadly not available as exhibition catalog at the time of the preview, provide the historical context to understand the legacy and the impact of these momentous fights for freedom and civil rights.

The visual narrative of these collective actions is juxtaposed next to that of 18 black individuals who rose to preeminence between the 16th and the 20th century and are featured in the series “Diaspora.” Drawing inspiration from existing historical materials, the photographer Omar Victor Diop created staged self- portraits where he embodied each one of the leading black figures.

The series “Diaspora” started with Omar Victor Diop enacting Juan De Pareja. He was an assistant to the celebrated court painter Diego Velazquez who set him free in around 1650.  He will go on to become “a notable painter in his own right.” Throughout the series that took two years to complete, Omar Victor Diop, became in turn Ikhlas Khan, (a slave who rose to become a prime minister in what is current day Ethiopia,) Albert Badin, (a servant in the Swedish court who became a prominent book collector) and more importantly Frederick Douglas. The gigantic and superb self-portrait of Omar Victor Diop as Frederick Douglas is at the entrance of the exhibition; its size is in proportion to the influence the slave turned poet-activist exerted over the abolitionist movement and beyond.

The yellow whistle along with the football props seen in each of the photographs of the “Diaspora” draws a parallel with modern day football players whose identities are still being questioned despite their being at the pinnacle of their profession. On the heels of the world cup that saw a French team composed of a large number of black players win, never has an exhibition that examines the issues of identity within the diaspora been more topical.

The series put together are an ode to black excellence.  The story told by the portraits are harrowing and may put you in a despair mode. But you are quickly raised up by the spirits of those who seemed to have had a bottomless reserve of resilience. They fought against all the odds, including their birth status, to take a space in societies that were not doing them any favours.  And now, they are rising again, this time, from the forgotten pages of history.

The photographer Omar Victor Diop’s work is tantamount to an alternative view of the history of the global black community. The introduction to the exhibition makes it clear that the photographer wanted to “challenge monolithic history-telling.”  I had seen some of his work before, at various art fairs and other thematic exhibitions. But “Liberty” and “Diaspora,” presented together in this set up gives a rare opportunity at least to those in London to engage with his work and understand the depth of his approach.  With these series, the photographer has transformed his artwork into a vehicle that reached far back and re-examines dark, controversial and mostly untold chapters of history.

Bryan Stevenson in a wide-ranging conversation with Art Historian, Sarah Lewis, published in Aperture, has emphasized the importance of narrative in the fight for justice. His organization, Equal Justice Initiative initially focused on providing legal assistance. They have now launched an art initiative and opened the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery. It is the first museum dedicated to the victims of lynching in the US.  It is one of these initiatives seating at the convergence of Art, History, and Justice.

Omar Victor Diop’s work may not be so openly political, but art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and his work is refreshingly not neutral.  Art and History have merged in a stunning series of work. And the gaze of the photographer, his searing gaze throughout the exhibition feels like an invitation to better engage with the past, a necessary step in the march towards justice.

Do not miss Omar Victor Diop – LIBERTY / DIASPORA. The exhibition runs until Nov 03 at Autograph ABP in London.

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