> Omar Victor Diop and Arpita Shah: exhibiting at Autograph, London

Caroline Molloy / Omar Victor Diop and Arpita Shah: exhibiting at Autograph, London

August 2018

The summer/autumn exhibition at Autograph, curated by Renée Mussai and Mark Sealy brings together two contemporary photographic artists, Omar Victor Diop and Arpita Shah who both use the agency of photography to explore the complexity of cultural identity.

Diop has two inter-related bodies of work exhibited at Autograph. ‘Liberty’ and ‘Project Diaspora’ (Liberty/Diaspora). Building on a tradition of identity performance seen with photographic artists, such as Seydou Keita, Diop uses self-portraiture to explore themes of identity, and representation. Placing himself as the central character, in ‘Liberty’, he re-enacts a universal chronology of Black Protest, such as the Alabama marches on Washington (Selma 1965) and the lesser known resistance movement against colonial oppression in south-eastern Nigeria (The Women’s War 1929).

‘Project Diaspora’ sees Diop become a range of notable Black African and diasporic African figures, such as Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), the abolitionist leader and Jean-Baptiste Belley, who was the first Black deputy to take an elected seat at the French Convention, and who delivered the impassioned speech in 1794 which incited the unanimous decision to abolish slavery. His work takes reference from specific historical tableau-style paintings and the emblematic contemporary footballer cards seen in circulation today. Diop’s visually seductive images aim to raise the visibility of Black protest and human rights by challenging dominant Euro/American history-telling.

Arpita Shah has twelve colour portraits exhibited, which make up her body of work ‘Purdah – Sacred Cloth.’ The portraits are of women from Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities in Scotland, who practice the tradition of head covering or veiling. There is a quiet distillation in Shah’s portraits that uses the iconic symbolism of the head scarf to talk about the complexity of cultural identity.

Alongside of the portraits Shah’s participants are given a voice. Each participant responds with her reasons of why she wears a head scarf. The participant’s words are written alongside of their portrait in three languages, English, Bengali and Arabic. Their responses are individual and give insight into the deeply personalised meanings attached to wearing a head scarf, for each individual sitter. Collectively, their words speak of the headscarf as a cultural signifier for tradition, identification and as a symbol of empowerment. In giving her participants a voice, Shah seeks to dispel mainstream media generalisations around the practice of head/hair covering, presenting it as an act of enablement.

There is a synergy between the two artists’ work, as both use the medium of photography to complicate dominant historical and contemporary narrative representations of Black/Asian cultural identities. Diop, drawing from his African visual heritage and Shah referencing her inherited Asian culture, seek to remind the audience of the complexity of identity politics. Using different historical and cultural registers the audience are invited to examine their assumptions about the representation of diasporic communities. These are two visually exciting and thematically complementary exhibitions that succeed in engaging audiences in relevant political and cultural debates, and should not be missed.

  – Reviewed for Photomonitor by Caroline Molloy


Omar Victor Diop: ‘Liberty / Diaspora’ and Arpita Shah: ‘Purdah – The Sacred Cloth’ are concurrently exhibited at Autograph, Rivington Place, London (20 July – 3 November 2018)


Full captions for selected images at right:


Omar Victor Diop, Frederick Douglass 1818–1895. From Project Diaspora (2014) © Omar Victor Diop / MAGNIN-A, Paris

Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, statesman and abolitionist celebrated for his accomplished oratory and writing skills. After escaping from slavery in Maryland in 1938, he became a national leader of abolitionist movements in New York and Massachusetts. He wrote three acclaimed autobiographies detailing his experience as a slave: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881). In 1847 he founded his own abolitionist newspaper, North Star. Douglass made several trips to Europe, and during one of his visits to England he became legally free when British supporters raised funds to buy his freedom from his American owner. He was the most photographed American of the nineteenth century, and he is also remembered for being the first African-American to be nominated for the position of Vice President of the United States. A symbol for freedom, human rights, equality, Douglass also supported campaigns for women’s suffrage. (Original portrait by Samuel J. Miller.)


Omar Victor Diop, Selma 1965. From Liberty (2016). Courtesy © Omar Victor Diop / MAGNIN-A, Paris 

Between 7 and 21 March 1965, three protest marches to demand the right to vote for African-American citizens were held along the 80-kilometre highway linking Selma to the state capital of Montgomery in Alabama, USA. These pivotal marches represented a defining moment in the struggle for civil rights and were instrumental in the fight for black voting rights. During the first of these marches, on 7 March, 600 protesters demanded an end to discrimination in voter registration, many of whom were severely attacked by law enforcement agencies, state troopers and white separatists. This event became known as Bloody Sunday. Dr Martin Luther King participated in the subsequent marches, on 9 and 17 March. Numerous killings, abuse by the police and the Ku Klux Klan, as well as the legal battles that marked the weeks of protests, all drew the attention of the national and international community to the issues of civil rights. The marches led to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.


Omar Victor Diop, Omar Ibn Saïd 1770 – 1964. From Project Diaspora (2014). Courtesy © Omar Victor Diop / MAGNIN-A, Paris

Omar Ibn Saïd, nicknamed Uncle Moreau and Prince Omeroh, was an Islamic scholar born to a wealthy family in Futa Toro, a northern province in modern-day Senegal, where he extensively studied arithmetic and theology with prominent Muslim scholars. He was taken captive during a military conflict, and brought to the United States in 1807. Although he remained enslaved for the rest of his life, he authored a series of works on history and theology, including 14 manuscripts written in Arabic, and a memoir entitled Autobiography of Omar Ibn Saïd, Slave in North Carolina, 1831. He died in North Carolina in 1864. (Original portrait by an unknown artist.)


Arpita Shah, Niqab, Samina. From Purdah – The Sacred Cloth (2013). Courtesy © Arpita Shah
“My niqab allows people to really listen to what I have to say and for them to not judge me, and my words, by the way I look’


Arpita Shah, Chuni, Perwinkle. From Purdah – The Sacred Cloth (2013). Courtesy © Arpita Shah
“I only cover my head with when I pray and when I’m around my elders, as a sign of respect”


Arpita Shah, Hijab, Shameem. From Purdah – The Sacred Cloth (2013). Courtesy © Arpita Shah
“The hijab is an outward manifestation of my faith, it goes beyond a piece of cloth; it’s also a means for how you behave and treat others’’