Heni Talk interviews Omar Victor Diop

By Mark Sealy

 

The relationship between the state and the black subject is, in many ways, still a highly contested one. What can we draw from historic imagery in order to move forward?

 

In this HENI Talk, Dr Mark Sealy examines black identity during moments of social upheaval and confrontation, as represented in the oeuvre of artist Omar Victor Diop. In his photographic portraits, Diop uses his own body to restage charged moments in history in a quest for us to look at and learn from these events afresh. His work encourages the viewer to question the narrative of history that we are traditionally taught and see black people themselves as the agents of change – exploring, for example, the role of black slaves during the first major revolt in Haiti in the 1790s, or the grassroots dimension of the US civil rights movement in the 1960s, or the often hidden presence of black women in the history of activism.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

I wouldn’t say that Western history has failed us. The point is that there is a deficit. We, as non-Western, haven’t had the same opportunities to tell our story from our perspective, and now, now is the time, now we have avenues to do so.

 

When you look at history, those that we consider courageous are not the ones who had weapons. They’re the ones who managed to forgive, move on, with a smile. You know, I’m always inspired by courage, you know, there are so many examples of people who have been courageous. All the people who walked in Selma – stepping out of your house, knowing that you might not come back. There are dogs waiting there, the KKK’s waiting there. No one is going to stand up for you. But you still go. You do it beautifully, you’re well dressed, you have flowers on your neck. This is courage.

 

[Mark Sealy]

If we look back through all of the historical spaces, I mean, there are some obvious absences around gender, around class, around race. And I think if we don’t begin to produce or, if you like – I don’t like the term push back, but if we don’t begin to think of history as being a more universal place, or historieswithin that wider narrative, then I think we’ll be struggling.

 

What gets remembered and what doesn’t get remembered, it’s not just that historical moment. But when we look at those images, certain triggers just kind of go off. Triggers that make us think about time, place and who’s important within history.

 

And it means we can begin to, if you like, build a series of kind of jigsaw puzzles around black protest or black activity, or diasporic voices, that are asking in a very similar way one kind of common question.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

And basically, there is something I try and convey, mostly with my eyes, and it always comes in the form of a question.

 

[Mark Sealy]

It’s like, ‘can I have my rights as a human subject?’

 

The mutiny of the Freeman Field of 1945 is considered to be one of the first demands for racial integration within the U.S. armed services. A group of African-American soldiers attempted to access an all-white officer’s club. 162 of them were arrested, three were court-martialled, and it wasn’t until 1995 when their convictions were revoked.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

When I connect with these people that I recast myself as, I feel as if I’m meeting someone that I was supposed to know. The connection happens when Ihave the feeling that there is a presence, and it sounds weird but I withdraw from my physical envelope and I let them in. And I sort-of let them take over.

 

I’m not going to say that I hear voices, ‘cause I’m going to sound crazy, but that’s really how it feels.

 

[Mark Sealy]

He puts himself in the frame, he aligns himself to a wider art history practice, very much a Eurocentric tradition. And he repositions himself to tell a very different story in that place.

 

In 1791, a former slave from Jamaica called Dutty Boukman led a religious ceremony on the island of Haiti. It served as a catalyst for a major slave revolt. Dutty was killed by French planters, who displayed his head as a deterrent. But his rebellion is regarded as a foundation stone of Haitian identity.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

For many decades, history has only been written from one perspective, which is the perspective of the winner, or the ones in power.

 

[Mark Sealy]

In 1944, a group of war veterans protested against France’s failure to provide their service pensions. In the bloody repression that followed, the authorities killed approximately seventy veterans in what would become known as the Thiaroye Massacre.

 

Here you have a Senegalese regiment, which come back after World War II, and they were promised, as servicemen, various rights. And it’s an awfully ironic moment, coming home and being killed for things like your pension. And actually, the idea that all these soldiers have their backs to you, and that there’s one turning back as a reminder, in terms of asking us maybe to look back, while these kind of march on into a kind of unknown destiny of conflict, if you like. That gaze, I think, is particularly strong.

 

Again, the question is what is the work that History paintings do? They kind of iconize, they glorify, they gloss over. Often some of the events never really happened, there’s a kind of fictional moment in there, very mixed up with mythology. And they’re really important markers of how a state, or a country, or a civilisation, sees itself.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

I am well aware that when I refer to history of the black people, I need to find a way to talk about it that is inclusive.

 

[Mark Sealy]

What gets remembered and what doesn’t get remembered? We know that the Civil Rights movement has been fully active since the 1920’s, since the turn of the century even. The Black Panther Party is of course a much more militant side of that – guns, leather jackets, people marching.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

The Children’s Breakfast Programme is for me the perfect example of a positive initiative being turned in the mind of the public into a terrorist initiative. A bunch of black men wearing leather jackets and dressed in all black, actually taking care of children because they don’t want them to starve at school. Fast forward a few decades afterwards, another young black gentleman being taught that actually they were terrorists, and I only discovered last year that it started with a simple breakfast for kids.

 

[Mark Sealy]

I think the leather jacket and the apron that he’s wearing are really quite clever because you’ve got the militancy of the leather, i.e. like an armour, a skin, which recognizes you as a militant player, and then you have the apron, which is something a little bit more, I think, one could say ‘feminine’ within the work.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

I’m not saying that the Black Panthers have never been violent, but we only remember the escalation and the physical fight, but we don’t remember where this all started.

 

[Mark Sealy]

And I think that creates a really interesting image of how we can read the Black Panthers in the future. And there’s more work to be done on the Black Panthers in terms of what they were actually about.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

For me black women have always been at the forefront of feminism. In many, many instances in history, women have taken the lead, and have fought for their brothers, children, and their communities. It’s not only an example of runaway slaves who’ve decided to create their own community and regain their dignity, it’s also the example of a woman who takes the lead in a fight for dignity and equal justice.

 

And I talk about slavery. I have probably felt the indirect consequences of slavery in one way or another. The struggle is still the same. Being black is still a flaw.

 

[Mark Sealy]

And I think what Omar’s work, by drawing us through events in the seventeenth century or eighteenth century, and to the kind of contemporary narratives, is really important, because it does two things. It says resistance is still absolutely necessary. The relationship to the state and the black subject, in many instances, is still a highly contested political reality. The idea that the black subject is very vulnerable, and the Trayvon Martin story is an articulation of that. The vulnerability of a young black man walking through his own safe space, and the disasters of what he represents as a black male, in a public space.

 

I mean, I think what he’s trying to do here Omar, is to remind us just how vulnerable the Trayvons are, in that moment.

 

I think there’s a huge difference between him and what Cindy Sherman’s doing. She’s playing with film, cinema, and the female gaze within that space, and the way that women are seen and constructed within that narrative, which are basically as objects of enquiry or objects of desire. I think Omar’s doing a very different piece of work, in which he’s asking us – by creating himself almost as an object of desire – what is this narrative really about? So, it’s not just the narrative of Hollywood.

 

One of the few places that the black subject gets brought into the frame is in the sporting arena, and actually there is more to black presences then sport and entertainment. So, he’s embraced it in a funny kind of way, it’s like these are, in many ways, your celebrities from the past, but football as an anchor to draw you in to who they might be is a really interesting device.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

These are the days of social media, these are the days of Instagram, Snapchat, and you name it. You need to come up with a way to touch people very quickly. At the end of the day, the basis of art is communication exercise.

 

[Mark Sealy]

People are really attuned to the idea that they’ve been shut out of different spaces and places, that the curriculum in schools doesn’t have the tools – doesn’t have this in their armoury, to teach kids, and if you don’t feel as if you’re history is being projected in that space it’s not surprising you get switched off.

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

What I see is someone from the past watching all the things that are going on the global stage. This conversation about accepting each other, so much racism going on. So many misunderstandings.

 

[Mark Sealy]

Why is it so difficult for black liberation to happen? In this day and age, 2018, an artist like Omar, they’re offering you a kind of, you know, it’s like how much more of this has to go on before these episodes become history?

 

[Omar Victor Diop]

Probably in his mind he must be thinking, ‘wow, this is still going on. When will you learn?’ That’s how also I want us to feel. To see basically that all the things that we are going through, as human beings, all this struggle, is been here for a while, and maybe we need to do the same as these gentlemen. There is probably an answer in the past that we can use to move forward.