Transforming A Colonial Past: Senegalese Artist Omar Viktor's Portraits Capture A New African Narrative

Omar Victor Diop, Transformative social and cultural power, Ayodeji Rotinwa, Senegalese photographer
Omar Victor Diop
Joel from Le studio des vanités. 2011.
In Omar Victor Diop's hands, the camera offers transformative social and cultural power. Ayodeji Rotinwa goes behind the scenes with the Senegalese photographer in Dakar

The first time Omar Viktor Diop had to sit for a studio portrait, it did not go well. It was his first year in an all-boys primary Catholic school in Dakar and the school had arranged for all students to be photographed. Diop remembers it well: the photographer set up a grey fabric as a background, had him sit in front of the camera But the result? A boy in school uniform, wide-eyed with fear. “I found it intimidating,” says the artist of his current practice and his takeaway from that incident. “It informed the way I initiate relationships with my sitters. It is like going to the dentist. It needs to be fast and not painful.”

He has had less threatening encounters since, growing up in a pre-Instagram age where graduations, independence days, weddings and other special occasions were documented exclusively in fleshy photo albums and from sessions in photo studios. The albums were a staple of the average West African household, a social document to be shared with visitors to pore over, which told stories of the often glamorously appointed people in them, filled awkward silences and and invited nostalgic conversations. This is the work photography greats such as Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta and Mama Casset created and what Diop now draws inspiration from, today.

Ken from the series Le studio des vanités. 2011. 

“We are losing that tradition,” says Diop. “I am not saying we need to go back to that because visual culture must change but as an artist I do have a responsibility to take care of that legacy, while trying to modernise it,” he says from his studio in Dakar. “When you look at the portfolios of these photographers, it was a way to document a generation, you can only be amazed by the quality of the story telling. It’s a window into what it means into being young, gifted and black in Africa.”

Diop is indeed following the direction of this gaze albeit with more political and revisionist intent, a method that has rewarded him with increasing acclaim in the art world. He photographs the African experience, forgotten or erased histories, tells stories of African people away from the spectre of imperialism, at the height of their powers, in realms of achievements, never as subjects, always as masters. One could say his work fi ts into the fashionable “Africa Rising” narrative that declares the entire continent is reinventing itself, shedding its reputation of disease, war and famine—a narrative that has had to be tritely repeated for years now because bad perception apparently dies hard. Diop is relentlessly clicking.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo from the series Diaspora. 2014. 60x40cm.

“I AM NOT PERFORMING AN ACT. I AM LENDING MY APPERANCE TO A NARRATIVE”

“There’s a lot of work to do and I know my work is not enough to solve the problem but my work is to contribute to the conversation,” he says. He also seeks to reveal bridges and links between African, Diasporan and Western histories. For Africans, they may see in his work something they don’t know enough of, for Diasporans, something they didn’t know at all, for Westerners, something that their forebears deliberately kept hidden. This was apparent in his last exhibition and latest body of work: Liberty/Diaspora that brought to life the role a number of historical black figures played in winning freedoms, through protest for political independence or against slavery. The exhibition also highlighted little known black achievers who existed between the 15th-19th centuries and contributed to the development of the world as we know it today.

“I have a natural tendency to look back and get inspired,” says Diop. “There are answers we need now that are in the past, be it in the message or the technique. I am very conscious in the value of legacy. Any legacy is wealth. There is no bad legacy. There is something in the past that is a fuel for improvement.”

Don Miguel De Castro from the series Diaspora. 2014.

Diop’s photographic journey here started in 2010 with the unexpected success of a futuristic biennale application and at age 30. An itinerant corporate communications professional at the time who worked for multinationals such as British Tobacco, he had responded to a call out by Bamako Encounters, the foremost photography showcase on the continent. Before then he photographed on weekends or while in Lagos, Cape Town or other cities on business. The call out asked applicants to produce a body of work on the theme of sustainability. Rather than perhaps show the effects (of the lack of ) sustaininable practices—waters polluted with plastic, arid farmlands or poor harvest that would not have been out of place per how the African continent is typically depicted—Diop chose a different tack. He imagined a future—2112 to be exact—where sustainability is a fashion trend, paper, plastic and other assortment of waste were musthave elegance. Playing on fashion’s inherent quality as a thing to be aspired to and recycling items from his own possessions, he photographed models with sponges styled as hair accessories, plastic bottles tied together as a skirt, cardboard paper as tuxedo in a high fashion editorial.

He won.

Jean-Baptiste Belley from the Diaspora series. 2014.

Two years after his biennale success and quitting his plush corporate job, he kicked off his ongoing Studio Vanities project in 2012, a travelling studio where Diop photographs diverse personalities of African descent—pharmacists, designers, professors, journalists— with a camera and backdrop he kept on hand. “The project was also a way for me to create a portfolio in the same style of photography that blossomed across West Africa during the last century but I wanted to modernise the technical aspects and stylistic approach,” says Diop.

Omar Ibn Said from the Diaspora series. 2015.

The resulting mesh of old and new is striking. In Sidibe’s studio portraits, for instance, sitters are more animated, more given to a fl ourish of the wrist, a leg raised on a stool. Diop’s borrows the studio format but his sitters are more restrained. Drama instead occurs around them in brightly patterned backdrops of fabric, carpet or raffi a, in their clothing and in assured, commanding expressions. In one memorable portrait of Baay Sooley, a Senegalese dancer and designer, against a knitted fabric backdrop, dressed in an embroidered coat with a droopy bow as necktie, his head is slightly cocked to his right shoulder. He holds a pocket clock, his left leg undecided, half in motion caught in the frame as he makes to step forward. His eyes he stares straight into the camera, a line crossing the lower part of his face making it into a almost-sneer. One may not forget him or the portrait in a hurry. “I wanted to showcase the incredible diversity amongst these people that also had great personalities in portraits that told their story and my interpretation of who I think they were,” adds the artist.

Khady from the series Studio Vanities, 2011.

From allowing the viewer wonder what kind of personalities his sitters might be in Studio Vanities, Diop turns the camera on himself in Liberty/Diaspora, recalling personalities of whom we really shouldn’t wonder, of which we should know more of and perhaps be proud. Diop prefers not to call his work in this series “self-portraits” though he appears in the series as the people he is recalling to memory. We see him as Kwasi Boakye (1904) a Dutch mining engineer and a prince of the Ashanti region, Ghana. We also see him as the men of the Freeman Field mutiny where African-American members of the US Armed Forces base attempted to integrate an allwhite offi cers club in 1945. “From a technical point of view they are [self-portraits] but when I look at the images I tend to forget that it is me,” says Diop. “I see the persons that I am talking about. I use myself because its a way for me to pay homage to them. It is hard for me to see them as self portraits because it is more about the story than who is in the picture. A self portrait has an element of performance that my work does not have. I am not performing an act. I am lending my apperance to a narrative.”

For Diop, that narrative is urgent and bears responsibility By unearthing (interconnected) African, diasporan and Western histories, Diop hopes his work— exhibited all over the world and domiciled in Paris at the MAGNIN-A gallery that represents him—can foster connections and understanding between these different audiences who might learn for the fi rst time that they had much more in common than they thought.

Sashakara from Le Studio des Vanités. 2016.

“ I AM VERY CONSCIOUS IN THE VALUE OF
LEGACY. ANY LEGACY IS WEALTH. THERE IS
NO BAD LEGACY. THERE IS SOMETHING IN
THE PAST THAT IS A FUEL FOR
IMPROVEMENT”

“I hope my work can be a bridge between my primary audiences: Africans and the African Diaspora,” says the artist. “We love each other, we know that we are connected but we don’t know each otherreally. How many Africans know what the civil rights struggle was about? We know Martin Luther King but asides that? It is the same situation on the other side, Africa is a lot more than Kings and Queens and Egyptians who were black…”

“And Wakanda?” I offered. Wakanda is a fi ctional country located in Sub-Saharan Africa created by Marvel Comics.

“I didn’t wanna go there but there you have it.”

Manden from the series Studio Vanities. 2012.

I was curious to know how the work was then being received by these audiences. Diop told me of a black Frenchman of Senegalese immigrant parents who visited his exhibition in Paris. Apparently, he had always felt his citizenship with France was inadequate because he could go back no further than his parents when he considered contributions of people like him to French history. He was stunned to learn that Jean-Baptiste Belley, who Diop brought to life in his exhibition, was a Senegalese native enslaved from Saint-Dominique in the French West-Indies who bought his freedom with his savings and rose to become fi rst black member of the French parliament and contributed to what we know to be modern democracy today.

Alt + Shift + Ego N°3 from Alt + Shift + Ego. 2013.

“I am a more confident human being now because I know greatness is something that happens naturally amongst my people too,” Diop explained recalling his research process while preparing the body of work.

“When you grow up as a young black man there is a lot in the world that shows you that greatness is not something natural for you. Every exceptional person or hero shown to you happens to be from a different heritage than yours. People tend to talk more about Victor Hugo than Cheikh Anta Diop.” I wondered what Western audiences may take away from the work then, as it is in their countries that Diop is predominantly exhibited. “My work is also for a greater audience. To say African history is human history and there’s so much to learn and progress to be made by knowing the contributions of Africa and Africans to the world.”

“WHEN YOU GROW UP AS A YOUNG BLACKMAN THERE IS A LOT IN THE
WORLD THAT SHOWS YOU THAT GREATNESS IS  NOT SOMETHING
NATURAL FOR YOU ”

Oumy Ndour from Le studio des vanités. 2015.

I wondered about this too. The undercurrent of movements like Africa Rising, and the need for Africans to insist and present that they are not only a confl ict-ridden, diseased people, as they have been portrayed, is an exercise of always being on the defence, of always having to prove a point. Pulitzer Prize-winning American author, Toni Morrison puts it more succinctly, though in the context of racism: “The function, the very serious function of racism, is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language, so you spend 20 years proving that you do... Someone says you have no art so you dredge that up... Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of that is necessary. There will always be one more thing."

Omar Ibn Said from the Diaspora series. 2015.

I asked Diop if his work strayed into this desire to prove African excellence to an often indifferent Western audience and if it especially leaves less room for Africans to be depicted as full human beings: complicated, messy, imperfect, not always excellent. Like everyone else. “I think the messy side of African is very well documented,” he replied. “People only talk about us when there’s an Ebola outbreak. The only time we are showed positively is in sports and entertainment. It is only natural to show another side. Is that healthy? I don’t know.”

After a few seconds of musing, he continued, “I don’t think we can show enough good things because we need to establish it. It is not granted. It is a duty for me to show to the world that the African experience is not a model. We are not a monolith.” Diop will have many more chances to exercise his duty with exhibitions coming up in Europe and America. At the moment though, what is taking up his time—in between attending his own exhibitions and global conferences—is the construction of his fi rst house that will include a studio, exhibition space and residency facilities in his home city, Dakar. It is where it all started, after all, with that terrifying schoolboy portrait. “Dakar is where I call home and where I fl y back to, even though I am always on the road. Dakar is where I have invested what art has given me.”


BY

Omar Victor Diop, Transformative social and cultural power, Ayodeji Rotinwa, Senegalese photographer
Omar Victor Diop
Joel from Le studio des vanités. 2011.