There has been increasing interest to unearth and understand Africa’s photographic history in recent years. Whether this is driven by the growing treasure trove of black and white images from the continent resurfacing; a need to dispel myths about what Africa is and is not; or a growing interest in photography for storytelling purposes in the Instagram-obsessed age, this journey promises to be an interesting one.
The latest treasure to be revealed on that journey is the Saint-Louis Photography Museum in Saint-Louis, Senegal, which opened last November. The museum hopes to eventually build an extensive collection of historic portraits, but has started off with the impressive personal collection of its founder, Amadou Diaw, a Senegalese businessman and founder of Groupe ISM, one of the region’s most respected business schools. The striking collection, mostly dating from 1930 to 1950, highlights the country’s rich and deep photography tradition.
Many of the most well-known photographs from West Africa were captured by Malick Sidibe, an internationally renowned photographer from Mali who captured iconic black and white images of the region in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Sidibe died in April 2016. But the history of photography in West Africa stretches further back. It begins in the coastal town of Saint-Louis in the north of Senegal, where a photo camera, believed to be the first to be used in West Africa (link in French), was sent by the French Minister of Marine and Colonies in 1863.
Saint-Louis was a leading urban center established by French traders in the 17th century. To maintain their stronghold, French colonists relied heavily on the establishment of a metis (mixed race) society. This society was born out of a union of French traders or soldiers (who usually had their own families in France) marrying local women (usually of a high class) to further their business interests. These women and their female descendants, known locally as the Signares, are an important part of Saint-Louis’ culture and history.
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