Omar Victor Diop in Conversation
with Deborah Willis
Omar Victor Diop (Dakar and Paris) Born and based in Dakar, Omar Victor Diop developed an interest in photography at an early age and uses the medium to capture the diversity of modern African societies and lifestyles. Finding quick success with early conceptual projects, in 2012, he was encouraged to end a career in corporate communications to further pursue life as an artist. With a body of work that includes fine art, fashion and portrait photography, including the globally heralded Studio of Vanities, a series of staged portraits showing the new faces of art and culture scenes in African urban centers, Diop enjoys mixing photography with other art forms, and uses costume design, styling and creative writing to give life to inspiration. Nurtured by Afro-Caribbean authors, such as Maryse Condé, he seeks examples of adaptation to new contexts and ways of being in his work.
My discussion with Omar will combine a historical, contemporary, and theoretical approach to how Omar’s images are constructed through an African diasporic history and global references to beauty, media, advertising, fashion, and popular culture. In doing so we will explore his references to iconic images, performance and photography, notions of stereotyping and how the power of an image extends beyond the meaning of its original purpose and takes on another form socially and historically. Omar’s works explore his interests in the philosophical reference of beauty as well as the interplay between fact and fiction, identity and history. Through works that incorporate paintings of historic black figures and vintage iconic stills of American cinema, it is evident that Omar mines the archives in an imaginative way to re-imagine and engage in histories often lost in a global narrative documents.
DW Let’s begin by talking about your third artistic project and how/why it was conceived? In response to an interview question on your Diaspora series by Sean O’Hagan 2015 in the Guardian you stated: It started with me wanting to look at these historical black figures who did not fulfill the usual expectations of the African diaspora insofar as they were educated, stylish and confident, even if some of them were owned by white people and treated as the exotic other. Individuals such as Albert Badin, a Swedish court servant in the 18th century or Juan de Pareja, who was a member of Velázquez’s household in the 17th century. I wanted to bring these rich historical characters into the current conversation about the African diaspora and contemporary issues around immigration, integration and acceptance.
DW How do you engage in this fascinating research in the project? I have always been interested in the way in which all of you connect personal memory to an art historical discourse.
OVD I have always considered that my approach of temporality does not necessary occur in a sequenced and linear way. I think that contemporary stories and experiences –those of my people and myself – follow patterns that were set in the past, and that in order to break the cycles of exclusion and exploitation, for instance, it is important to study and revisit past events, especially the less narrated chapters, such as slavery, colonization and other similar defining moments. The research which led to Diaspora started as research in Art History, and initially served a strictly technical purpose.
I was fascinated by the way classical painters such as Velasquez crafted directional sunlight around the faces of their sitters, and was looking to find examples of portraits of black people, to see how I could draw inspiration from them. I came across a few paintings, such as Jean Baptiste Belley’s portrait by Girodet, and after a while, I felt the need to know more about the stories behind these dignified black sitters. That’s how the journey began. I was really moved by what I discovered.
DW In thinking about the idea of how you introduce your work to a varied audience, especially through your website we enter through three portals Portraits; Fine Arts; Fashion. I find it transformative: What are the stories you want to tell in each sub-category; i.e. The Studio of Vanities and Artist Sittings?
OVD When it comes to photography, people have very different expectations and ways to “consume” images; This certainly is due to the wide range of specialties in the discipline (from documentary to fashion, etc.). I try and guide the viewer through my universe, but the path I create is decidedly confusing, as I place some works in sub-categories they don’t naturally belong to. There’s a documentary dimension in my portrait work, but the fashion photography influence in it is undeniable. My fine-art section is very cinematic and could’ve been in the fashion sub-category, if it wasn’t for the stories I try to revive. This is probably due to the fact that I’ve always tried to stay away from labels, because they imply comparisons. There is no “serious” and “frivolous” photography, such qualifications can only apply to the intent behind every body of work.
DW Where do you see yourself now in your artistic practice? What ideas, sensibilities, aesthetics and media inform it?
OVD After close to five years of self-discovery through photography, I have come to realize that this adventure is not only about portraiture, self-portraiture, good faces or looks. I consider my practice as a journey to a higher level of awareness of what binds us together, as human beings, and I cannot achieve this goal if do not open up to new social/cultural contexts. I now need to explore new artistic and human territories: I believe that the sum of findings that I am now carrying needs to be tested and enriched.
DW What are your thoughts about the response to your images as you travel throughout the continents of Africa, Europe and North America? How does this kind of access lend itself to a new way of reading your work?
OVD The key learning is that regardless of race, age and gender, there is still quite a large number of folks who haven’t given up on trying to understand what we (as humans) have been through to get to this troubled context; we live in very uncertain days, where the borders between activism and terrorism, responsibility and exploitation, defense and exclusion are very fragile. Most importantly, there’s a great number of people who want to learn about/from “the other”, and who crave a cause to defend. This gives me hope and purpose. The overall feedback I got from my body of work is that it is one that offers many layers of interpretation, and challenges preconceived ideas; I couldn’t dream of a better objective.
DW Beauty has been a central part of your work of art practices, denial and acceptance--any thoughts about this. Do you think black beauty has been ignored in the discourse of art? Often I have heard younger artists connect concepts of beauty to issues of human rights? What are your thoughts about this and especially the project The Future of Beauty. You describe a segment of the project Fashion 2011-12 as “a visual projection of what could become our standards of beauty and elegance, the day will throw in very poor taste. Plastic, paper, scrap metal, noble materials and elegant 22nd century!”
OVD I think that many societies, including some of African descent have struggled with the notion of black beauty. Of course it has something to do with human rights, since the degrading descriptions of the black body served the purpose of de-humanizing black people a few centuries ago. This system is still very much in place. The attributes of the black body are never fully acknowledged and celebrated. The adjectives to describe a beautiful black woman or man are always tinted with a dose of irony or restraint (Viola Davis’s beauty was deemed “unconventional” in an article in the New York Times last year…)
DW That’s astonishing… the qualifiers used in describing black beauty. Curator Raquel Wilson writes in your 2014 Project Diaspora-Self-Portraits that …"references to sport[s], football in particular, show the duality of living a life of glory and recognition, while facing the challenges of being 'other'. Paradoxes he finds are shared between modern day footballers in Europe and the men of the original portraits depicted in his self-portraits."
What is the motivation for the projects, and what kinds of things have you uncovered so far as you dress for history in front of the camera, specifically as figures such as A Moroccan Man, Dom Nicolau (Kongo), Jean Baptiste Belley (Senegal/Haiti), Juan de Pareja (Spain)? I am impressed with your discourse of absence in these heroic figures who transformed histories.
OVD I lived every self-portraiture session like a pilgrimage… Inviting these forgotten souls into our present times felt like turning into a medium, allowing these historical figures to continue a discourse that they started during their lifetime. This project is about memory, celebration, but it’s also about justice and recognition.
DW I remained intrigued by that project. There is a distinct presence of the male pose in your work. There is a confidence about the masculine pose as he/you wear historical costumes with such authority … tell us about how you reconfigure your characters in history? Did your previous work in posing your Vanity series make you more conscious in setting the poses for the Artist Sittings?
OVD The existence of original works from which I could draw inspiration made things easier for me, I need to be honest about that fact and take very little credit for it. Also, I grew up in a part of Africa where all my portrait references featured very proudly asserted male presences. Portraits of my grandfather, my father and generations of men had something in common: a portrait is a statement, it is material for self-esteem and family history. My portraits are taken in the same spirit, except here, “the family” has a much wider meaning.
DW Nice. You have re-staged historical moments and recreated iconic images that re-imagined life in Hollywood from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to hyper-masculine histories of political leaders such as Abolitionist Frederick Douglass. I was pleased with your response to a question at the Black Portraitures II Revisited conference at New York University on February 20, 2016. The questioner asked if you would ever focus your camera on your own body to create multiple conversations about black women in history. Would you mind repeating your response here?
OVD The reason why I only featured black male historical figures in the series of self-portraits Diaspora is that I didn’t want the series to be perceived as just another performance aiming to offer a theatrical and dramatized take on an important chapter of history. What I wanted people to remember was the stories that I’m re-telling, these exceptional destinies. I felt that a series of self-portraits with me wearing a wig and a Victorian dress would be a distraction from the essential matter of the series: memory.
Thank you Omar.
Interview conducted by Deborah Willis, Professor, New York University, Tisch School of the Arts
March 22th, 2016