In one of his famous self-portraits, Omar Victor Diop, a Senegalese photographer and artist, wears a three-piece suit and an extravagant paisley bow tie, preparing to whistle in yellow plastic. The painstakingly staged photograph evokes the memory of Frederick Douglass, the former fugitive slave who, in the 19th century, became a leading abolitionist, activist, writer and orator, as well as the first African American to be appointed vice president of the United States.
Diop is no stranger to depicting the suffering and hopes of black people around the world. Throughout his work, which incorporates historical references and costumes, he has highlighted the vital role black and African figures in world history, celebrated dignity African migrants and refugees, woven together the history of black protests from the Selma march to the Soweto uprising in South Africa, and examined the impact of climate change in Africa and the countries of the South.
Through his bold images, Diop examines the interplay between African and diasporic experiences by connecting the past and the present.
“I am fascinated and surprised to see how Africa is always present in everything an African American would do; they don’t even realize it,” said Diop, who lives and works in Dakar and Paris. “Sometimes you watch an African American woman on reality TV and you look at your sisters and your aunts because of the expressions – it’s translated and said in English, but she could be in Dakar and speaking Wolof.”
Diop wants to create connections and community through his work, while using history to connect the experiences of people of African descent. By highlighting figures like Douglass or events such as Nigeria’s Women’s War, he said, he hoped to not only start a conversation within the coming generation, but also deepen relationships between the Africa and the diaspora.
“There are so many inspiring stories that can have significant resonance on the continent and vice versa,” he said. “I think there is an absolute need for more interaction. We don’t even know each other well enough.
Diop was born in Dakar in 1980 to a father who was a chartered accountant and a mother who was a lawyer. He became a full-time artist more than a decade ago, after years of studying finance in Senegal and France and working in corporate communications in Dakar, Nairobi and Lagos.
The self-taught Diop, whose paintings have been exhibited around the world, draws on the rich tradition of West African studio portraiture practiced by artists like Mama Casset (Senegal), Malick Sidibé (Mali) and Samuel Fosso ( Nigeria). But his work is not limited to the traditions of studio photography: as he embarks on a project, Diop obsessively reads about his subjects, talks with historians, and even tries to replicate his subjects’ clothing choices , like the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther. King Jr.’s suits or Trayvon Martin’s hoodie.
“Fashion imagery, fashion language is a tool that allows me to get into the minds” of viewers, he said. “It’s about creating a very attractive image to camouflage the heavy subjects that I bring. And it’s also a way for me to celebrate the memory that I bring.
At the beginning of October, Diop announced a new project entitled “Be there,” which explores the place of race and identity in America in the years following World War II.
Diop also plans to produce educational materials, including books and games, that will engage young African and diaspora audiences on issues such as art and climate change. He hopes to show how their stories of struggle and success are interconnected across centuries and continents.
“I firmly believe that there is an African spirit of resilience and excellence despite everything that has been thrown at us,” he said.