On Sunday, I visited the Mariposa Museum in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. They are showing an exhibition of the work of the Senegalese fine-art photographer Omar Victor Diop. I’d written a catalog essay for him, and so I was eager to see the work again. Though I’m untrained in art history (beyond a few college courses), I love to write about visual art. In particular, I love to write about the work of artists who use the visual as a historical archive, and even more so if what is represented includes a palimpsest of artifacts. Diop takes photographs of himself embodying historic figures of the African continent and diaspora. In one, he is a member of the Black Panther Party; in another, he’s Dutty Boukman, an early leader in the Haitian Revolution and a Vodun spiritual leader—a houngan—from the Senegambia region of West Africa. In one piece, repeated images of Diop represent railroad workers striking in South Africa; in another, formerly enslaved people who created a Maroon society in Jamaica. As Frederick Douglass, he dons a thick mane of kinky hair. Attire and accoutrements tell the figures’ histories.
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The Power of the Black Portrait
Visual art can help restore dignity to those who have been dishonored.
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