For the last 200 years, Africa has been struggling against colonial powers, corrupt despots, vicious warlords, tribal feuds, a rapacious slave trade, widespread poverty, plague, and starvation. Stark images of a stubbornly backward and beleaguered “dark continent” have been so pervasive in Western culture that it’s especially heartening, and eye-opening to the less-traveled, to come upon the work of Senegalese photographer Omar Victor Diop. Africa is the youngest continent on Earth (50 percent of its population was born after 1990), and Diop has captured his own exuberant and sophisticated generation, particularly its creative vanguard, in an ongoing series of portraits wryly titled The Studio of Vanities, which was recently on view at Paris Photo. Friends and colleagues of various races and origins are asked to freely express themselves in elaborately staged poses that combine current fashion and traditional indigenous fabrics. Diop exhorts his sitters to conjure their aspirational selves in vivid meldings of fantasy and local reality, so the series as a whole is a celebration of Africa’s promising future, or at least Senegal’s. Ingenuity and brio abound, as his subjects rise to the project of codifying an identity. One woman fabricated an 11-meter skirt for her portrait. “You want to show through your portrait your vision of what your life is in Africa,” says Diop, “and why you chose not to live in New York or Paris. It might surprise many people, but I think my generation tends to stay or come back to Africa because they see its potential, all the things that can be done from here.”
Diop is based in Dakar, one of the most cosmopolitan of African capitals (it’s a vital and liberalized gateway to West Africa, and an international hub). He has only worked behind the lens since 2011, when he got so bored with his “very serious job as a desperate corporate manager” that he devoted weekends to shooting landscapes and eventually fashion — which evolved into the sartorial framework of his style-driven images. Like his peers, he had been exposed to a global mix of cultural idioms, and his personal pantheon of photographic heroes includes both Africans (Malick Sidibé, Seydou Keïta) and Westerners (Richard Avedon, Annie Leibovitz, Jean-Paul Goude). He was also smitten with canonical painters from Velázquez to Manet, as can be seen in his series Diaspora — wherein he poses as early painted figures but with a whimsical soccer-fan twist. Apart from the infectious fun of Diop’s work — the upbeat mood of his world is highly seductive — he is very determined to examine the nuances of identity that growing up in Dakar’s diverse bandwidth gives rise to. The spirit of giddy fusion runs throughout Diop’s work, but most obviously in his ongoing series in collaboration with Antoine Tempé, Re-mixing Hollywood. They took their favorite movie scenes and restaged them as if they’d been shot in Africa, a valentine to cinema that also touches the persistent industry conundrum of racially biased casting.
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