Born in Dakar in 1981, Omar Victor Diop studied at the ESCE International Business School in Paris before working at Ernst & Young as an analyst, and then with British American Tobacco (BAT) in its African international relations department. During this time, Diop spent his days indulging a passion for photography before eventually exhibiting at the Bamako Encounters photography festival; he’s been a professional photographer ever since. At the festival he presented his Fashion 2112, the future of beauty series, an exploration of ‘sustainable’ fashion for the coming century, which showed African women dressed in kraft paper and festooned with Brillo pads.
In his native Dakar, he’s immortalised some of the artists, bloggers, and television presenters of his generation. His last series, Project Diaspora, was a sensation at Paris Photo in November 2014. In these 12 self-portraits, he recreates European paintings of important black people from around the time of slavery and colonisation, but who still remain under-appreciated in a history that he seeks to redress.
Sabine Cessou: Where do you see Africa in the next 50 years and beyond?
Omar Victor Diop: During my last trip to South Africa, I came to realise that Africa is really just a concept – somewhere between a dream and a vision. It’s been a continent of enormous diversity throughout its historical development, where all the events that are now presented as universal were in reality lived through in very different ways. In the time of slavery, certain countries came out of it better than others. Under colonisation, the experiences of Senegal and Belgian Congo were not the same. For me, when we speak of the Africa of the present or the future, we’re talking about an abstract concept rather than a reality.
Is it because South Africa has nothing to do with Senegal, which has nothing to do with Tanzania?
Which has nothing to do with Ethiopia! Of course, I do hope that the African Union (AU) will finally become a reality in the next 50 years. Likewise, we should also aim that ‘African’ growth is ‘shared’, and not just restricted to Angola or Equatorial Guinea while Chad or Liberia trail behind. I’m optimistic, but I think we’ve got to look at each situation in turn, while keeping an eye on parity of growth, good governance and education across the continent.
Do you think countries that have suffered deep crises, such as South Africa, Rwanda or Angola, are more forward-looking?
Going through such difficult times has given them a desire to look to the future. These countries have the will to build a future for themselves rather than wading through periods of reconciliation and national exorcism.
Is it time then for Africans themselves to stop saying ‘in Africa’ when they are actually talking about their own country?
I’d rather be referred to as Senegalese rather than African. I’m even happier to be called a ‘Dakarian’ photographer. When I’m abroad and I hear people say ‘Well, in Africa…’ I always want to ask them ‘Which part of the continent are you talking about, exactly?’ It’s said with good intentions, but it sounds a bit phoney. In the last Paris Marathon there was a Gambian runner carrying a water bucket on his head to highlight the suffering of African women who have to collect water. But this isn’t a resource problem that affects women in Tunis or Abidjan. With that one word, you put 800 million people in the same box!
Do you belong to the generation that grew up with computers and the internet?
I’ve been using the internet since I was a teenager. Without the web, I probably wouldn’t be the photographer I am now. The internet is a space where people, strangers, admirers have encouraged me and still encourage my photography. I would do online tutorials until three in the morning, every week, but without social networking or the internet, I would probably still be doing my old job.
More broadly, the internet has accelerated changes in Africa. ‘Y’en a Marre’ (a Senegalese social movement) has spread to the Congo. The internet also means I can connect with remote audiences, like the black community in America. My work is well known in New York, Atlanta and Los Angeles, even though I’ve never exhibited there. Empire, the biggest show in the African-American community at the moment, starring lots of famous actors, uses artworks in its set design. I’ve received emails from people saying they’d written to the producers of the series to get my photos on there as well. So, through the internet, Americans have become unofficial promoters of my work.
Do you also use the internet in your work?
Commercially speaking, yes. I have in the past entrusted the least creative aspect of my work to retouching studios in India, cropping images and so on, for a couple of hundred euros. Tedious jobs like that can be done in less than six hours in India. It means I can concentrate on the more creative side of my work.
When you exhibited your series The Future of Beauty in Bamako, did you get the feeling that you were an oddity, with these futuristic photographs, whereas West African photography has focused more on the past and a trenchant examination of identity, such as the portraits of Seydou Keïta or Malick Sidibé?
It’s less the focus and more the tone of my work that made it a bit different. The brief was on the theme of a sustainable world. Lots of other artists made statements, heartfelt appeals or critiques, along with very scholarly works on pollution and quite dramatic images. My contribution was more optimistic and humorous. It had links to fashion and design, emerging from the past and the present to imagine something more anchored in the future.
Do you think contemporary art across the continent looks more towards the past than the future?
The past, and notably the time when countries become independent, does keep cropping up in photographers and artists’ work. But what others consider ‘the past’ is much more recent for us. Most of our countries are no more than 55 years old, unlike France, which has been around for centuries. For us, the 1960s serve as a point of departure for examining the future. My series, The Studio of Vanities, is a nod towards the photographic tradition of Mama Casset and Seydou Keïta. Taking a portrait forces you to think about the future: I always wonder how I will see the portraits I’m doing now in 15 years’ time. Our past is our platform, and hopefully the next Spike Lee or the next Donatella Versace will be Africans!
Why is that the best-known francophone photographers are mainly those from the past?
The dominance of great photographers of the past corresponds to market logic: their photographs sell well. People like to buy that version of Africa, because we like to buy nostalgia. The gallery I work with (André Magnin) specialises in, amongst other things, African photography from the 1940s, 50s and 60s, but it has also made the decision to throw open the doors to more contemporary work, like mine.
Your project [re-]Mixing Hollywood, which revisits classic scenes from American cinema by ‘Africanising’ them, was interpreted in the United States as social commentary, but couldn’t it also be seen as you and Antoine Tempé just playing around and having a laugh?
It was more like two adults exploring the playfulness of cinema itself. It’s true that there was a context to what we were doing, which corresponded to the current crisis of representation of black people in the media and cinema in America, as well as their treatment in society, with the Trayvon Martin case. By highlighting me, and ignoring the fact that Antoine Tempé is actually French, certain journalists used the series to frame the debate. And why not? That is, after all, what art is for. The racialisation of the photographs’ meaning shocked us at first, then made us laugh. I was able to observe how out there people can be.
Rather than condemning a problem with minorities that concerns those in Europe or the United States, you were creating a fantasy – but a fantasy that had an edge?
It was about the cinema of the future, and what might come out of that. The movement is already under way, although not immediately apparent. All the great animated films by Pixar and Disney were drawn in South Africa, where there is an entire film industry. All African nations equipped with the means to produce good-quality work will encourage industry to be outsourced there. Nigerian cinema will become less focused on growing in size and scale and focus more on quality. Eventually, Hollywood will be overtaken by Nollywood!
South Africa has a long tradition of photography, as well as cinema. Is it an exception, in terms of an African tradition of excellent photography?
At the last Foto Fest in Addis Ababa, in Ethiopia, I was surprised by the almost religious devotion of the young people for photography. Many youth collectives were formed with a desire to discover their country and to discover themselves. We are going to hear more and more about Ethiopian photography, especially documentaries: young people reporting their experience and showing us their country.
Do you not get the impression, when you travel from English-speaking Africa to French-speaking Africa, of going back into the past? Do we not cultivate in francophone Africa a certain nostalgia and sadness for our postcolonial situation which prevents us from moving forward?
It’s certainly a colonial inheritance: the same discrepancy exists between France and the anglophone world. Paris is one of the most beautiful cities in the world, but it’s a museum town compared with London or New York. In one way, it’s quite natural that Dakar should be as nostalgic as Paris.
Moreover, Dakarian nostalgia is shot through with arrogance, another inheritance of colonisation. We tend, in Dakar, to look down on other Africans a little, because colonisation wasn’t as bad an experience for us. We have been good little pupils and we have had peaceful relations with France. Dakar, let’s not forget, was part of the four French communes of Senegal, with Rufisque, Saint-Louis and Gorée. These cities were French before independence in 1960, and their inhabitants were French. That’s where our sense of having benefited from special treatment comes from, and which influences our relationship with the rest of Africa.
This ‘other’ Africa, from Senegal’s perspective, are these the Africans from the Gulf of Guinea and Central Africa who are pejoratively termed ‘niaks’ in the Wolof language, literally meaning ‘barrier’?
I don’t like that term, which doesn’t do any service either to the Senegalese or to ‘niaks’. We forget that we are cousins and that we share a common history prior to colonisation. We were all the subjects of the Mandinka Empire, once.
In Dakar, it’s quite common to hear people say that they will see you ‘in a bit’, which could mean an entire day. Is it cliché to say that Africans have a different relationship with time, or is there some truth to it?
Oh, it’s absolutely true. In societies with Arabic and Islamic influences, we don’t try to control time! It’s one of the great cultural differences between Africa and Europe. We say inshallah (‘God willing’) when we talk about our plans, or say to each other ‘See you tomorrow’, but with a hint of ‘maybe’ about it. Or, as the Senegalese say, ‘Let’s see what God has in mind.’ In my family, as in the rest of society, having firm plans doesn’t stop you from saying inshallah. When you say sikanam (‘right away’), you can’t be 100 per cent sure whether you’ll be back in three hours or three days. The future, for us, is a spectrum of possibilities. It’s not solely the result of actions in the present. Some intangible part is left up to God.
The sense of the passage of time isn’t the same, either. By the way, nothing is more complicated that being taught how to cook by a Senegalese woman. She doesn’t own any measuring implements and will just ask you to put in ‘just enough’ rice and to let it cook ‘until it’s ready’ – and it could take you five years to learn what she means exactly. When we say ‘Ages ago’, we could just as easily mean 50 years or five centuries. Another revealing Dakarian expression is: ‘x o’clock’. So people might say they’ve known each other since ‘x o’clock’, or say ‘see you at x o’clock’ – this word legui could well mean five minutes or several hours. So time becomes elastic, but we know it won’t be long before we bump into one another again. With Ivoirians, it’s all in the intonation. When an Ivoirian says ‘a long time ago’, by stretching out the last syllable he can let you know exactly how long ago he means!
Is it less stressful than the European way of managing and calculating time?
We do have this quite impressionistic capacity to manage uncertainty. Even if some things are predictable, we always have a plan B, even a plan C, D and E. It’s uncanny!
Do you think there is a certain culture of the ephemeral in Senegal and in the Sahel more widely… Do artists care as much about the legacy of their work? Are they more philosophical than elsewhere in the world about the idea that their work might be destined to disappear?
Family history is passed down the generations, but very few objects last long enough to be passed on, outside of textiles and jewellery. In this way, an entire collective memory can sustain itself, and we consider this more important than objects. The Senegalese live alongside a parade of ancestors, and this idea of lineage comes before the inheritance of symbolic objects. A Senegalese woman who inherits jewellery from her grandmother could very well have them melted and turned into new jewellery. She has no qualms about doing this, as the memory of her grandmother remains intact. Perhaps it’s that which makes artists less attached to their work than with the memory of their work – without wanting to play anthropologist here. Not being able to find a childhood toy is not a big deal for me, as the memory of the object is enough. Without doubt, it’s a character trait of ours, and which means our memories are always more precise.
In your series, Project Diaspora, you made portraits of yourself as important black figures from the past. Where did you get the idea?
During a residency in Malaga, in Spain, I threw myself into the work of Velazquez, and others. I found pictures of black immigrants who had left off being seen as foreigners and become important figures in Europe, at a time where it was very unlikely for them to flourish – during colonisation and slavery. All these people ought to be celebrated, but they just aren’t. For example, Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746-1805), was born in Gorée, Senegal, then sold as a slave in the French Antilles. This man purchased his freedom by making sacrifices that we simply couldn’t imagine today, then found himself in France in the middle of the Revolution, a member of the National Convention and then in the Council of Five Hundred. Or look at Angelo Soliman, born into slavery in Nigeria. He was a servant, a mathematician, a philosopher and confidant to Joseph II, Emperor of Austria, as well as Mozart and Haydn. Not that that stopped someone, after his death, in 1796, from skinning him like an animal in order to decorate an imperial salon. It was only destroyed in 1848 – when slavery was abolished.
The common thread that runs through the series is the obscurity these figures disappeared into after their remarkable rise. In Malaga, it was harder than in Dakar to find models to pose, which gave me the courage to do self-portraits. I didn’t make that decision lightly. I didn’t want to look like a megalomaniac! By making all the figures carry objects related to football, like balls, red cards and studs, I linked them to the present in order to situate them within the debate on immigration and the integration of foreigners into European societies. All these eminent but unknown people were the first to obtain recognition for black people for their exceptional talent. Today, it’s a talent for football that gives you that passport.
By linking these historical figures to the present, what were you saying about the future?
With this series, I’m trying to contribute to history in some way, because the version of the past that historians give us is generally biased and incomplete. Some textbooks just decide, out of hand, to avoid certain chapters of history. But a complete and universal version of history is much easier to share than a selective one. By shining light on these forgotten figures, I’m looking for a way to welcome Africans into this shared version of history. And yeah, the way I do it is a bit fantastical and futuristic, rather than nostalgic or strident. Talking about the French Revolution in a way that includes Jean-Baptiste Belley means we can start to imagine our role in creating a shared future.
Do you feel a shift in the way that people talk about Africa, as a continent that wants to bring something new to the world?
Well, it’s not just about Africa but about black people in general. The movement began with academics, and artists have run with it. And the public have shown recently that they really can handle the truth: so, for example, I was invited at the end of May to Florence to speak at a conference organised by NYU to talk about the diaspora, with an audience full of people I really respect – like Henry Louis Gates, who’s published a five-volume book about the representation of black people in Western art. And you only have to look at massive films like Django Unchained or Twelve Years a Slave, which have gone to great lengths to research and properly represent their subjects.
When an independent Dakar was first dreamt of, was the aim for it to become like Paris? And has it achieved that dream?
Senghor himself said ‘Dakar will become like Paris, one day.’ Nowadays, we tend to say one of two things: ‘Senegal dey dem’ (‘Senegal’s getting going’), which we say about positive advances. But when you can’t even post a simple letter, we say ‘Senegal dou dem’ (‘Senegal’s going nowhere…’) My generation is patient, but we do also want things to finally get going, for the country to get rid of some of its old habits… We’re a bit more pragmatic, less wistful than the older generation, and we’re also a bit more pessimistic with regard to our own ambitions. Sometimes, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and admit that, ultimately, the bad habits are too deep-rooted to do anything about them.
But isn’t it a good sign that you are still based in Dakar, and don’t want to leave, despite your international success?
I’m a Dakarian, and I really hope I never feel the need to live anywhere else. Six years ago, I dreamt of going to work in Senegalese clothing and now I can do that. I’m very happy here in Dakar. We’re starting to get the message that we don’t have to turn into Parisians – and to be honest, I wouldn’t want to anyway. There are other ways of living… and God knows there are things in this Aladdin’s cave of a city you won’t find anywhere else!
Translation by Michael Morgan.