Omar Victor Diop: Black Subjects in the Frame
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Omar Victor Diop: Black Subjects in the Frame

October 16, 2019

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, because 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. 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 histories within 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 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. And basically, there is something I try and convey, mostly with my eyes, and it always comes in the form of a question. 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 in 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. 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 I have 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. 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. For many decades, history has only been written from one perspective, which is the perspective of the winner, or the ones in power. 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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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, you know, 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 and 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 just 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. 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, for me, the basis of art is communication exercise. 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 though you’re history is being projected in that space it’s not surprising you get switched off. What I see is someone from the past watching all the things that are going on right now on the global stage. This conversation about accepting each other, so much racism going on. So many misunderstandings. 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? 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, it’s 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.

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