Sometimes you stumble into lucky situations.  That’s what happened when the High Museum in Atlanta hosted the “Making Africa” in 2017 and I was invited to attend a lecture given by one of the many fantastic African artists who were highlighted in that exhibit – Omar Viktor Diop.

This self-taught photographer from Senegal was sponsored by the French Consulate and spoke about regaining the tradition of portraiture that was uniquely African but lost for a variety of reasons.  He also spoke about the importance of portraits because they depicted people who had lives and stories and successes and failures and experiences, and in a way, by creating portraits of them, you were eternalizing their stories.  You were giving life to them even though history had sought to eliminate them and their stories.

His portraits highlight people who started their lives as slaves, then rose to positions of prominence in government.  People who had migrated from one country and established themselves in a new land. People who had fought in wars and participated in feasts of opulence.  They are beautiful and colorful and filled with textiles and textures and richness that represent the regions and the subjects of the photos.

And he explained why he thought this work was so important.  He said that taking away someone’s identity – which includes their sense of family, of history, of region, of culture, of struggle, of pride and accomplishment – is one of the most demeaning and heartbreaking things you can do.  He said that in Senegal, often one of the first questions asked when meeting someone new is, “Who are your people?” For too many, their culture and identity and history has been swept away, so his work is an effort to help get it back and to help them be proud of where they’ve come from and also proud of where they’re going.

Since then, I was also able to see his work in Evora, Portugal, and I learned about his work called “Liberty: Universal Chronology of Black Protest” which includes photos that represent Trayvon Martin, Selma, World War I fighters returning to Africa, and more.  It is powerful for its images, the visuals, the statement it is making, and the stories that are being held up.

I admire his stories and his recognition of the power in knowing your own stories.

Sources: which is where the photos are from!