12 Striking Images Show the Side of Africa's History You've Never Seen Before

Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery

African soccer players in Europe lead a life defined by paradoxes.

On the one hand, they're admired, praised for their skills and social influence and upheld as athletic royalty. On the other, they are strangers in a strange land: The racism they encounter in stadiums across the continent — from fans shouting racial epithets to throwing bananas on the field as they pass — proves how hostile and isolating black life in Europe can still be.

So it's no surprise that Senegalese artist Omar Victor Diop chose the sport as a metaphor in his new project, a visual motif linking Africa's past transplants in Europe to those living on the continent today.

Jean-Baptiste Belley (1746 – 1805) was a former slave in the French West Indies who bought his freedom with his savings. He became a member of the National Convention and the Council of Five Hundred of France. Original painting by Girodet.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery

In his latest photo series, Project Diaspora, Diop chose figures of African descent who played notable roles in European history. Their lives span the period between the 16th and 19th centuries, an era notable for both the intermittent appearance of such figures in European art and for how little most people actually know about them — even in Africa.

Using himself as the subject, Diop recreated these classic paintings as photographic self-portraits, adding soccer balls, cleats and other athletic gear to complete the symbolic link between past and present.

Ayuba Suleiman Diallo (1701-1773): Born in Senegal, Ayuba's memoirs were published as one of the earliest first-person accounts of the slave trade. Original painting by William Hoare.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery

"As I discovered [these] very striking portraits painted by renowned European artists, I felt the need to dig in further and know more about these characters, whom I had never heard of," Diop told Mic via email. "After a few months of research, I had unveiled enough stories to wonder how I could conceive a body of work that would share their exceptional destinies."

Adolf Ludvig Gustav Fredrik Albert Badin (circa 1750 – 1822) was a Swedish court-servant and diarist, originally a slave, butler of first Queen Louisa Ulrika of Prussia and then Princess Sophia Al-bertine of Sweden. Original Painting by Gustaf Lundberg.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Don Miguel de Castro: Around 1643, de Castro went to the Netherlands to find a resolution to an internal conflict in Congo. Original painting attributed to Jaspar Beck or Albert Eckout.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Angelo Soliman (1721-1796) was taken captive as a child in modern Nigeria and eventually taken to the home of Prince of Liechtenstein in Vienna, rising to chief servant and royal tutor of heir Prince Aloys I. He was also a valued friend of Austrian Emperor Joseph II. Original Portrait by Gottfried Haid, based on an artwork by Johann Nepomuk Steiner.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery

Diop's series comes at an especially fraught time for relations between Europe and African migrants. In 2015 alone, 1,776 people, mostly from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, have either drowned or gone missing during the dangerous overseas trek from northern Africa to southern Europe, the Guardian reports. In a particularly tragic incident in April, an estimated 800 people were killed when their boat capsized off the coast of Libya.

The European Union has responded to this influx of migrants with a combination of rescue aid and militarized deterrence, neither of which has done much to stem the flow of people attempting the trek or to integrate them into European society.

In response, Diop aimed to portray his figures "in a way that would positively contribute to the current conversation on migrations from Africa, the role that Africans have played in the human experience that we refer to as 'history,'" he told Mic.

A Moroccan man (1913). José Tapiró y Baró was a Catalan painter. One of his closest friends was the painter Marià Fortuny with whom he shared an interest for Orientalism. He was a master of watercolor painting.Original Painting by José Tapiro y Baro.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Dom Nicolau (circa 1830-1860), prince of Congo, is believed to be among the earliest African leaders to publicly write in protest of colonial influences, particularly against Portuguese commerce, political activity and military expansion. Original engraving: Unknown Artist.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Juan de Pareja (1606 – 1670) was a Spanish painter who also acted as an assistant for influential artist Diego Velázquez. Original Painting by Diego Velasquez.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Kwasi Boakye (1827-1904) was born a prince of the Ashanti empire and sent to the Netherlands as a boy in 1837 to train to become a mining engineer. Original Portrait by: Unknown Artist.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
Olaudah Equiano (1745 – 1797) was a prominent freed slave in London who supported the British movement to end the slave trade. His popular autobiography, published in 1789, was considered highly influential in passing the Slave Trade Act 1807, which ended the African trade for Britain and its colonies. Original engraving by: Unknown Artist.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
August Sabac El Cher (circa 1836 - 1885) was an early Afro-German who was given to Prince Albert of Prussia as a boy in 1843, embraced as Prussian and became part of an influential military family. Original portrait by: Unknown Artist.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery
St. Benedict of Palermo (1526-1589) was an Italian Franciscan friar in Sicily who is venerated as a saint in the Catholic and Lutheran churches. Benedict is remembered for his patience when confronted with racial prejudice. Original sculpture attributed to José Montes de Oca.
Source: Omar Victor Diop, courtesy of Magnin-A Gallery

The project is ultimately meant to push back against the notion that Africans' contributions to Europe are lacking, novel or even exclusively predicated on slavery and colonialism — though the latter is an unavoidable part of the conversation. But it's not the only part, as Diop is quick to point out.

"People don't know much about the relationship between Africans and the rest of the world," he told Mic. "Very few people know that some African kings and queens had diplomatic relationships with their European peers. Even on the topic of migrations between Africa and Europe, the current conversation tends to have a very narrow analysis of the phenomenon, while actually Africans have been traveling in and out of Europe for centuries, as traders, soldiers, pilgrims or diplomats."

It's a lot of missing knowledge to make up for. Diop's work is an important step toward doing so, and a necessary contribution to this persistently under-told part of history.

These photos have been cropped or otherwise formatted to fit this article. For more of Omar Victor Diop's work, visit his website, gallery site, or find him on Facebook and Twitter.