Theses Doctoral

Un Nouveau Besoin: Photography and Portraiture in Senegal (1860-1960)

Paoletti, Giulia

Senegal’s leading role in the development of African modernism in the 1960s is well known. Lesser-known is that, a century earlier, photography first arrived and took root in Senegal before circulating across French West Africa. This dissertation focuses on the genre of photographic portraiture in a country that did not have sculptural or masquerade traditions. It studies the ways in which photography accommodated and fostered new social and artistic practices and identities in Senegal between 1860—when the first studio opened in Saint Louis, the historical capital—and the 1960s, when photography became a “social imperative,” to use Geoffrey Batchen’s description (2001). The first chapter discusses cartes-de-visite commissioned as early as the 1860s by the first Senegalese patrons. In the course of this discussion, I challenge unilateral conceptions of photography as an apparatus of ideological control monopolized by the colonial authority. Chapter Two argues that Islam—the predominant religion in Senegal since the late nineteenth century—facilitated the popularity of the genre of portraiture through the circulation of devotional images in the form of lithographs, glass painting and photographs between the 1890s and 1920s. Chapter Three focuses on two photo series by amateur photographers from Saint Louis in the interwar period. I argue that these snapshots delineate the birth of a new subjectivity that neither mimicked French culture, nor conformed to Wolof customs. The last chapter juxtaposes the work of Mama Casset and Oumar Ka, two studio photographers working in the 1960s and 70s, in the capital and the rural interior of the country, respectively. In doing so I revisit the association between photography’s modernity and urban living, and propose that modernity can also be linked with “rural” tastes and styles. Rather than interpret it as either a “foreign” or “local” technology, this dissertation traces the fluctuations of photography’s significance in a dialectic relation with European, Islamic, American, African and Indian sources, revealing the nature of the medium as a multiplier of visions. Given Senegal's privileged status within La Grande France, this analysis will contribute to our understanding of the relationship between photography and modernity in Africa and beyond.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Strother, Zoe Sara
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 30, 2015