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Windrush day

POSTED: 19 June 2020

Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop imaginatively recasts histories and the global politics of black resistance in his practice, exploring what unifies and defines these global fights for freedom, visibility and human rights. His elaborately staged photographs are rich in detail and symbolism, in his own words “a reinvented narrative of the history of black people, and therefore, the history of humanity and of the concept of Freedom”.

In July 2018 Autograph opened Liberty / Diaspora, Diop’s first solo exhibition in the UK. Alongside the exhibition, we also commissioned him to create two new works: our curators invited Diop to visually respond to an iconic image Zoot Suits of three black men posing for the camera shortly after the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush, which docked at Tilbury, Essex on 22 June 1948 carrying 492 economic migrants from the West Indies.

For the second work in the commission, Diop chose to reinterpret a photograph of a group of men waiting outside the Ministry of Labour & National Service in Liverpool. The original series of photographs was taken in 1949, and first published in a photo-essay Is There a British Colour Bar in the Picture Post. Both archival photographs are represented in the Hulton Archive, a division of Getty Images, and copies have been acquired for Autograph’s permanent collection of photography.

Diop says of the commission: "The idea behind the two images was to interpret a key moment in (black) history in Britain, and celebrate the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948. The photographs I researched from the era show men from the Caribbean dressed in stylish suits, hats, posing for the camera and captured at this moment of a change, when a new phase in their lives is about to begin, full of hope and anticipation.”

“The reality of course was that they faced discrimination, hardship and unemployment ... The first portrait is based on an 'arrival' image from June 1948, while the second portrait re-stages an archive image of a group of unemployed men at the Ministry of Labour approximately one year later. Conceptually, the two works reflect the visual style, rich colours and multiple protagonists of my previous series Liberty, including the recurring flower motif. The pages surrounding the protagonists are from a letter penned by former Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1945-1951) on 5 July 1948, detailing information about immigration to the UK. These are metaphorical self-portraits, re-imagining different moments [of resistance] in history - and celebrating long African lineages in the diaspora."

It's been 72 years since the Empire Windrush arrived, and with each passing year it feels ever more important to connect that past to our present, to keep these diasporic connections visible and reimagine our futures.

Find out More

Limited edition prints from Omar Victor Diop’s commission are available to purchase through Autograph's online shop. All sales support our arts and learning programmes, and the artists we champion.

Diop has a great Instagram account, follow his work here.

Watch Omar Victor Diop: Black Subjects in the Frame by HENI Talks.

Download the extended caption sheet from the Liberty / Diaspora exhibition, with images and historical context.


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Images on page: 1) Omar Victor Diop, Ministry of Labour and National Service, Liverpool: 1949, (2018). Commissioned by Autograph, London and ©️ the artist. 2) Omar Victor Diop, Empire Windrush, Tilbury Docks: 1948 [detail], (2018). Commissioned by Autograph, London and ©️ the artist. 3) Omar Victor Diop, Empire Windrush, Tilbury Docks: 1948, (2018). Commissioned by Autograph, London and ©️ the artist. 4) Omar Victor Diop, Ministry of Labour and National Service, Liverpool: 1949 [detail], (2018). Commissioned by Autograph, London and ©️ the artist.