Omar Victor Diop abandoned a corporate sales job to work full time as a photographer, creating colourful, beautifully staged photographs with a powerful message
In Spanish artist José Tapiro y Baro’s watercolour A Moroccan Man, painted circa 1913, a man with a short beard, just beginning to turn grey, is captured in three quarter profile, wrapped in a swathe of cream cloth. When Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop restaged the portrait for his series Project Diaspora, he mimicked the man’s pose and serious expression, but replaced the cream fabric with a bold African floral print in green, pink and white, creating a dizzying profusion of flowers. On his knee, he balanced a shiny new football.
Born in Dakar in 1980, Diop is a rising star on the international scene, having taken up photography as a hobby soon after his 30th birthday. The self-taught photographer was working in corporate sales when he bought a camera and began shooting landscapes and experimenting with fashion photography. In 2012, his project The Future of Beauty was selected for exhibition at the Bamako Biennial. The playful series imagines a fashion shoot in the year 2112, in which models pose in outfits made from recycled water bottles, colourful tarpaulins, plastic netting and brown paper.
“In the call for submissions there was a general theme: for a sustainable world,” Diop says. “I didn’t want to just point to all the things we’re doing wrong, because I think people are less sensitive nowadays to that kind of work, which is how the environment has been talked about for decades. It’s also part of my personality… I think that no matter how serious the topic is, it’s possibly to talk about it in a fun way.”
Diop’s career took off almost immediately and in May 2012 he quit his job in finance to work as a photographer full time. His work has since appeared in high profile festivals and exhibitions all over the world, but the artist is modest about his growing reputation, putting it partially down to luck. “I think I was fortunate,” he says, “and also it was a context that was favourable for someone like me to come up, because there weren’t many photographers of my age who were trying new things and who were still living in Africa and producing from Africa.”
He is wary of being pigeonholed, however. “I can never deny that I see things as a Senegalese and as an African, but I always make sure that being an African is not a profession,” he says. “That’s the challenge that every African artist faces. Do you restrain yourself from seeing things as a human being, rather than just an African? Do you only participate in African-oriented events and projects? … I participate in important, specialised events in Africa, but I also make sure that I have a presence with more global audiences at international photo or art festivals, because the only way we can define or redefine perceptions of Africa is by being involved. You cannot shy away from who you are.”
In 2014, during a four-month residency in Malaga, Spain, Diop began working on Project Diaspora. Feeling like an outsider, he was struck by a series of European paintings from the 15th to 19th century, capturing diaspora Africans. He decided to restage 12 of them, posing in costume as each of the subjects.
Diop selected the portraits based on what was known of the subjects’ lives. “They have this in common: they all lived a life that was a paradox, a mixture of glory and rejection, shame and pride,” he says. “Most of them were born in slavery, or were enslaved, and had very dark beginnings, but somehow they managed to transform all this into glory and influence. These were stories of such a dramatic destiny that I focused more on that than the aesthetics of the original paintings.”
He added pieces of football gear to each photograph as a way to tie the series together, as well as to encourage reflection on the reality of life as a diaspora African today. “All of these African football stars in Europe or the rest of the world are successful, they are respected for what they do, but not always for who they are,” he says. “Soccer is a universal phenomenon but it’s also where you see racism and exclusion. Sometimes people throw banana skins or they make monkey sounds when an African soccer superstar scores a goal. We should have made it further in our search for unity, but still there’s a lot of work to do.”
Each image is meticulously planned and edited in post-production. “I actually write every photo before I shoot it,” Diop explains. “For example, Project Diaspora started out as a series of monologues, one for each portrait.”
But there are still surprises when it comes to how the work is received. Take the series [Re]-Mixing Hollywood, a collaboration with Dakar-based French-American photographer Antoine Tempé. The series of 20 photographs were shot in hotels in Dakar and Abidjan, imagining what the photographer’s favourite French and American movies might have looked like if they had been conceived and filmed in Africa. “We were very surprised to see that it initiated a conversation about race,” Diop recalls. “It created a conversation on diversity in Hollywood, which was not our intention, but it was a good thing, because when a piece of work creates a conversation, then it serves its purpose.”
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, The Interventions Issue #34, on page 131.