Essay

A Young Person Recommends... LIBERTY / DIASPORA

For his first solo exhibition in the UK, photographer Omar Victor Diop explores and performs the international history of black revolution. The exhibit, curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy, features a selection of works from two series, ‘Liberty’ and ‘Project Diaspora’. Diop acts as the protagonist in both ‘Liberty’ and ‘Diaspora’ responding to the fragmented history of the African diaspora and informing African portraiture with football references.

 One of the first things I noticed when I entered the exhibition were the costumes and intricate prints displayed in every photograph. Commissioned pieces from tailors in Dakar, the eye-catching costumes not only root Diop’s work in African culture but also seem to symbolize the status and elegance of the characters Diop embodies.

During a talk at The Autograph on October 5th, Diop stressed that “you cannot become a hero without seeing yourself as such”. To me, ‘Liberty’ serves as a creative response to the fragmented history of the African diaspora. Because history is so often told by ‘the victor’, Black history is often erased. The scenes depicted range from Soweto Uprisings in 1976 South Africa to the Women’s War in 1929 Nigeria. Diop recreates these often untold stories, using a camera and his expert editing skills as both a tool for social justice and an affirmation of the truth.  

In the other half of the exhibition, ‘Diaspora’, Diop explores the social phenomenon of football in African cultures. These images explore the often forgotten, but essential history of relationships between Africa and the rest of the world. Whether it be connections through trading, early diplomatic efforts or the legacy of the continental slave trade. Diop remakes these portraits of individuals who became prominent political figures during their time holding footballs, wearing cleats, or with goalie gloves. These works examine the surface level admiration for a modern football player by equating it to the representation of Africans in Western and Asian art history.

The exhibit as a whole is almost overwhelmingly colourful and each portrait is composed to fill the entire frame. Diop layers multiple versions of himself, eye-catching costumes, background colours, and scenes that almost fill the photo to capacity. Despite the multiple layers, the photos do not feel crammed. Everything in the shot is planned and expertly placed to signify something. Diop is filling in the empty gaps of history and the composition of the images reflects that idea of replenishment.

I left the exhibit stunned by how visually striking the work was but also interrogating my own connection to and knowledge of African culture and history.

– Kadijatou Diallo