Seeing Photography as an African Art Form

By way of introducing Portrait and Place: Photography in Senegal, 1840–1960 (2024), author and educator Giulia Paoletti puts forth the Senegalese cultural practice of xoymet (kho-e-mët). Paoletti translates the Wolof verb as “to let someone catch a glimpse of something intimate,” one of several interpretations of the expansive tradition. Here, she highlights the practice of decorating a bride’s room with a temporary archive of family history and borrowed photographic images.

Xoymet, a practice that recaptures and represents glimpses of what has come before, is an arresting and appropriate entry point into Paoletti’s examination of the extraordinarily layered history of Senegal. Portrait and Place surveys more than a century’s worth of photography in a place where shattering historic events proliferated alongside the development of the medium. The oldest surviving daguerreotype in West Africa was made in the 1840s, when now-dissolved local nations held power. Afterward, photography was avidly embraced by local populations and artists, quickened by encroaching French imperialism — indeed, the medium would document Senegalese liberation from colonial rule in the 1960s.

The book frames photography as an African art — contrary to preconceptions from European visitors throughout the century. From the earliest images, documentary portraiture is a mainstay of Senegalese photographers, but these images become jumping-off points for artistic remediation. Sometimes, this comes in the xoymet form of curated archive, wherein older photographs are used as background for newer ones, as in the cover image, a portrait by Macky Kane of his wife Fatou Thioune. It isn’t simply that prior images form the setting of a new portrait; in pose and gaze, Thioune purposefully echoes the regal daguerreotypes of her cultural ancestors.

However, in the second chapter, “On Islam, Portraiture, and a New Need,” Paoletti unfolds an even more complex form of remediation: that of the little-documented form of popular lithographs in the Islamic world, which includes Sufism, which was established in Senegal in the 11th century and still its predominant religion. Though Islamic tradition specifically forbids the depiction of the human form in art, the art of the Sufis eschews this notion. Paoletti demonstrates direct-line transitions from specific photographs to later works — for example, a portrait of Amadou Bamba, a Sufi saint, dressed in a long white caftan and head wrap (c. 1917) is referenced in a glass painting produced by Gora M’Bengue in the 1950s. In other examples, photographic pieces were inset within glass paintings or lithographs, creating ornate collage forms that blur the decorative with the archival.

Portrait and Place also works to counteract erasure, featuring some of Senegal’s most prominent modernists, like Mama Casset, but also giving name to lesser-known photographers like Macky Kane and Oumar Ka. Paoletti takes time to identify her extensive research methodology, noting that in 2007, when she began work on the book, there were only a few publications on the subject. Presenting as much text as imagery, this book offers a firm handhold in a rich and fascinating exploration of photography as an archival and artistic medium — but it also allows an intimate glimpse of a place that holds its own self-image close.

Portrait and Place: Photography in Senegal, 1840–1960 (2024) by Giulia Paoletti is published by Princeton University Press and available for pre-order online and from independent booksellers.

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