Omar Victor Diop

Mirror Games in the Studio

© A. Magnin

This is the story of a former financial analyst who graduated from the Paris Business School, was recruited by Ernst & Young then by British American Tobacco, and who found himself propelled to the role of figurehead for a new generation of Senegalese artists. It is the story of a man who, at a time when others dreamed of leaving their homeland, decided to stay and build his future there. It is the story of Omar Victor Diop, who decided to devote himself to his passion ever since his very first photo exhibition occurred in 2011.

In his most memorable series Diaspora, the 38-year-old artist tries his hand at bringing historical black figures back to life. “During a residency in Spain, I immersed myself in Velasquez’s painting”, he says. “I found black travellers who were unknown in Africa but who became public figures in Europe during the colonial and slave-trading era, where they couldn’t therefore distinguish themselves.” These figures include Jean-Baptiste Belley, who was born in 1746 in Gorée, Senegal. Sold as a slave in the French West Indies, he arrived in France in the thick of the revolution and became a member of the Convention, then the Council of Five Hundred. Another was Angelo Soliman, who was taken captive as a child from what is now Nigeria and brought back to Europe as a slave, where he became a servant, mathematician, philosopher and friend of Emperor Joseph II of Austria, Mozart and Haydn. Forgotten by History with a capital H, they come alive again here in a modern setting decked out with anachronistic accessories. The exhibition includes pictures borrowed from this series, as well as from some of the photographer’s other, more recent projects. “In Diaspora, by depicting each of them with football-related objects, I anchor them in the present so that they remain relevant to current debates in European societies: immigration, the integration of foreigners, etc. These distinguished, unknown men were the first to indicate that black men could be gifted with exceptional abilities. And today it’s football, for example, that serves as a passport.”

Although they carry strong messages, Omar Victor Diop’s photographs are also imbued with incomparable optimism and energy; they radiate a pop, urban culture that he uses to explore the themes of identity, unhesitatingly including himself in the composition. “When you grow up in an African city, you necessarily have a very mixed aesthetic perspective, with films coming from everywhere else.” But in French-speaking Africa, he notes this difference: “There’s an almost melancholic art of nostalgia. My work, on the other hand, is resolutely turned to the future.”

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