Filmmaker turned photographer Dagmar Van Weeghel examines culture and identity through portraits of African immigrants in a series titled Diaspora. These non-models, swathed in clothing inspired by pre-19th century Orientalist art, pose proudly, displaying a quiet elegance that is timeless. And through these images, Van Weeghel pushes us to reconsider our own preconceived notions of what it means to be African in the West.
Van Weeghel was initially inspired by the experiences of her Zimbabwean husband, who moved to Europe nine years ago, as well as a trip to Andalusia in Spain, which is rich in Moorish history. Her portraits herald the importance of African settlers in Europe through history, their clothing a combination of antique and contemporary pieces that harken back to the Orientalist watercolor portrait paintings of Josep Tapiró Baró in Tangier, Morocco.
“Those portrayed are not dressed like a specific historical figure,” Van Weeghel tells My Modern Met. “The portraits may appear exotic because of the aesthetics, but the purpose is tied to the context in which they were created—specifically, the process of ‘othering.'”
From Penda (an 18-year-old girl from Guinea who was separated from her mother for 5 years) to Ninho (a 29-year-old from Angola whose family still lives in Africa), each subject has a unique, yet poignant story to tell. How did they react to seeing themselves captured in such an artistic manner? “All those portrayed loved their regal portrait which brought out their heritage, character, and beauty. Especially the strength captured touched them.”
It's this strength and character that Van Wheeghel hopes viewers take away from the ongoing series. By looking more deeply into each individual, and beyond their “otherness,” we can begin to build a bridge of understanding. “These portraits are an homage to African immigrants and their collective experience—past and present—and a tribute to their strength, resilience, and perseverance. It is my hope that this work will also open up discussions and help remind viewers of the important contributions that Africans have made throughout European history as well.”