Omar Victor Diop, The W/African Railway Strike 19, from the series Liberty.
Born and based in Dakar, Senegal, the 37-year-old self-taught photographer Omar Victor Diop was in Spain for an artist residency when he had the idea to do a series on the unsung heroes of black history, titled Diaspora. After studying black subjects in classical baroque painting, Diop got to work and quickly realized the series had developed another layer: though he’s long focused on modern Africa in his pictures, he ended up feeling such a connection with the historical figures that posing as them felt like “invoking souls that needed a voice to speak”—particularly about how issues of race and justice stand today. Concluding that “times change, but the struggle of oppressed people remains the same,” Diop, who started out in finance but is now represented by Magnin-A gallery in Paris, moved on to grouping together black protest throughout history in Liberty, a series he finished in 2017 and which he again starred in, often as multiple figures in the same frame. Simultaneously, though, Liberty is also Diop beginning to open up his practice to other subjects, too, but easing into it slowly—starting with adopting a female alter ego.
Genevieve Gaignard, Hidden Fences. Courtesy of the artist and Shulamit Nazarian
Remember how a nonexistent film, Hidden Fences, ended up being brought up again and again during last year’s award season? The mashing of two completely different films, Fences and Hidden Figures, which both happened to have predominantly black casts, is exactly the type of seemingly harmless mixup that the 36-year-old photographer Genevieve Gaignard has devoted her practice to by calling attention to just how “telling [they are of ] America’s subconscious prejudices.” As a mixed-race woman, those types of “unspoken divides” have long been unavoidable for Gaignard, who uses her self portraits—like the ones at the center of her upcoming show, which is of course titled “Hidden Fences”—to meditate on race and beauty through a variety of persona. (In doing so, she’s also gotten the art world’s attention in the process; she was the standout name at Prospect, New Orleans’ sprawling triennial, last year.) It’s a testament to just how deep Gaignard can delve into the complexities of identity, though, that the effectiveness of her portraits can often be found in their backdrops: she always takes care to create painstakingly detailed domestic sets for each of her characters.
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Darkroom Mirror, 2017. Courtesy the artist, Yancey Richardson Gallery, team (gallery, inc.), and Document
Paul Mpagi Sepuya, who’s 35 and based out of Los Angeles, doesn’t just capture homoeroticism through his camera—he also makes it impossible to be unaware that he’s doing so, by offering peeks at his lens and his photo studio in between the fragments of bodies, which might otherwise have been simply sexualized. Sepuya, whose work can currently be found in in both MoMA’s biennial and the New Museum’s triennial, may appear in many of his photos, but for him, they’re not about his identity: “I’m interested in using my body, alongside the black and brown velvet, as a material for revealing information that is otherwise obliterated by whiteness,” he said. “It’s about asserting force, interchanging my body, my hand, and the camera lens.”