History Repeated

Reanimating portraits of forgotten black Africans

A recreated portrait of an unnamed Moroccan man. Original painting from 1913, by the Catalan artist José Tapiro y Baro. PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR VICTOR DIOP
A recreated portrait of an unnamed Moroccan man. Original painting from 1913, by the Catalan artist José Tapiro y Baro. PHOTOGRAPH BY OMAR VICTOR DIOP
01 March, 2016

IN 1797, THE FRENCH ARTIST ANNE-LOUIS GIRODET painted a portrait of Jean-Baptiste Belley, a statesman and former military officer of the French Republic. A native of Senegal, Belley was sold into slavery at the age of two and taken to the French colony of Saint-Domingue, now Haiti. He saved enough money to purchase his freedom, fought as a commander and captain in the French Revolutionary Army, and later became a deputy representative for Saint-Domingue at France’s National Convention, in Paris. Belley became among the very few black Africans of the period to attain such an elevated status in Europe. Girodet’s painting depicts him in a nobleman’s finery—a long navy-blue coat, khaki breeches and a white cravat—but also contains a hint of protest; Belley leans on a pedestal that supports a bust of Guillaume-Thomas Raynal, an Enlightenment writer who advocated the abolition of slavery.

More than 200 years later, the artist Omar Victor Diop, also from Senegal, shot a photographic recreation of the painting. In it, Diop adopts a pose and wears clothing similar to Belley’s, but, instead of a bust of Raynal, he leans next to a curiously anachronistic object: a brightly coloured football. The image is part of a photo series called Project Diaspora, released in 2014, in which Diop recreates pieces of Western art from the fifteenth to nineteenth centuries that feature black African subjects. Each photograph swaps out an object from its corresponding original work for an eye-catchingly modern prop related to football: pristine goalkeeper’s gloves, a yellow referee’s whistle, a striped orange cleat.

Inspiration for Project Diaspora came to Diop while he was researching art history during an artist’s residency in Malaga, Spain, in early 2014. He became particularly fascinated with various portraits of black Africans by Western artists from between the fifteenth and the nineteenth centuries. Diop was disappointed to find that the people featured in those pieces were often omitted from historical narratives. “I started to feel the need to celebrate their memory,” he said. He shot the first few photographs for the series in Malaga, and returned home to Dakar to take the rest.

The subjects of the original art pieces had attained a tenuous prestige in their societies, although they were often still regarded with racist xenophobia. The out-of-place props in Diop’s photos connect the past with the present, evoking one way black Africans sometimes attain a similarly fraught celebrity in the West today: playing football. In an interview with The Guardian, he said, “when you look at the way that the African soccer royalty is perceived in Europe, there is a very interesting blend of glory, hero-worship and exclusion.” Sometimes, Diop continued, “you get racist chants or banana skins thrown on the pitch and the whole illusion of integration is shattered in the most brutal way.”

Contemporary racial dynamics aside, Project Diaspora is most deeply concerned with honouring the subjects of the original art pieces. For example, although Diop posed for all the photographs in the series, he is uncomfortable using the term “self-portrait” to describe them. “It’s not me taking pictures of myself,” he said, “it’s more about these historical figures, to whom I lend my body, for a revival performance.”