when photography reveals Saint-Louis of Senegal

VSIt is a place of discovery, history and life that Amadou Diaw created with the Museum of Photography of Saint-Louis, better known as MuPho. In fact, it happens like an update, because in the former capital of Senegal, Augustus Washington, one of the rare African-American daguerreotype artists of his time who had emigrated to Liberia, opened the first photography studio in West Africa in 1860. And in 1863, on the initiative of the French Ministry of Marine and Colonies sent the first camera to Saint-Louis.

The founder of the Higher Institute of Management, the first business school in French-speaking West Africa, is in love with his city and is now one of the 3e The global education provider had made it its mission to keep alive the flame of the former capital of Senegal, which the writer Ousmane Socé Diop spoke about in his novel Karim that it is “the center of Senegalese elegance and good taste.” To achieve this, he spares no effort to contribute to the preservation of the material and immaterial dimensions of his city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While MuPho has titled its 2023-2024 program “Timeless – Dreams of Yesterday, Dreams of the Present, Promises of Tomorrow,” more than 30 exhibitions will be shown in locations that represent the originality of what is known as the “Archipelago of Museums “ referred to ,” Amadou Diaw spoke to Point Afrique.

Africa point: How did you come up with the idea for MuPho?

Amadou Diaw: The MuPho was an important step in my life as a collector, which I began in the 1990s. I initially collected plastic, paintings and structures and at the same time noticed that there were many old photos in the family suitcases even though I didn’t have a collector’s eye for these pieces.

Another battle that I have long been waging alongside my work as an educator is the protection of Saint-Louis and its material heritage.

The combination of my activities in the fields of education and culture and my passion for history and archives naturally led me to found a museum. I focused on the realities of the past when African youth were born into the world of photography.

That’s why we founded the Photo Museum in 2017. He had immediate success. It must be said that it was a real innovation, because there was no photography museum in either Senegal or West Africa. With what we had at our disposal, we were able to position ourselves as the museum with the largest photography collection in West Africa. And the rest happened naturally.

In 2023 we had to think about a new stage. We then worked on the commitments for the next day. How ? By bringing young people from Saint-Louis and elsewhere to our school to take photos and highlight their achievements.

Why and how was the choice for a fragmented museum made?

We chose the concept of the museum archipelago on one wing of the island of Saint-Louis. In short, it is my contribution to the policy of protecting the heritage of Saint-Louis, which, as you know, has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

How did we do it? We restored as many houses as possible, respecting UNESCO standards, to put Saint-Louis on the map of cultural cities in Senegal, the continent and even the world.

These houses could have been hotels or restaurants, but I did it that way because I want to convey a message through photography, an important art. It always fits into my logic to make the connection between culture and education. In fact, young students from surrounding high schools, elementary schools from here and even from a little further away and even from Dakar come to see and bring to life Saint-Louis through its material heritage, namely the buildings, and its intangible photography.

Today we are 9 miles away and soon it will be 10. This will gradually lead to the emergence of a museum city, but we are on an island within a city that has become very large. And I don’t plan on stopping because I want to give meaning to as many houses as possible. There is great diversity within this group, as the museums are each dedicated to an art: sculpture, coasters, photography, etc.

Can you describe these different places to us?

Naturally. There is a zero point. It is symbolized by the heart. This is the “Villa MuPho”, a meeting place and living space where you can, for example, drink your tea. On display are primitive African art, but also the history of African independence and the role that Senegal played there, particularly among the countries of the French-speaking world. This is important because Senegal played a leading role. And Saint-Louis was the city where it all began. Photography is proof of this.

Point 1 is called “The Counters”. In this converted hangar I wanted to commemorate the existence of these counters, because it was there that the gum arabic that made Saint-Louis rich was stored long before the arrival of peanuts. It should be remembered that Saint-Louis, with its river port and docks, played an important role in the gum arabic trade along the Senegal River. So we salvaged one of these counters from Saint-Louis and converted it into a gallery where artists exhibit their work.

At point 2 we highlighted the entire history of photography at “Ker Repentigny” with a reference to Canada. We named it after a Quebec governor: Louis Le Gardeur de Repentigny (1721-1786), who also gave his name to the town where Céline Dion came from, Repentigny.

There we learned the true history of photography in St. Louis. There are contemporary objects and devices by the pioneer Jules Itier, who was born in Paris in 1802 and died in Montpellier in 1877. He was a customs collector, but above all an enthusiastic photographer. In doing so, he took the first photograph taken in West Africa.

After Jules Itier, we have information about the Senegalese forerunners: Meissa Gaye, born in 1892 and died in 1993, and Mama Casset, born in 1908 and died in 1992. We pay homage to them by setting up studios similar to the ones we knew when we were young .

Point 3, called “Ker Ameth Gora” in memory of Ameth Gora Diop, is dedicated to literature. We pay tribute to our great writers and literary figures Birago Diop (1906-1989), David Diop (1927-1960), Alioune Diop (1910-1980) and Ousmane Socé Diop (1911-1973). The latter wrote one of the most beautiful pages about Saint-Louis in his novel Karim, Published in 1935.

Point 4 is dedicated to sculpture. It is called “Ker Thiané”, a name adopted from the Wolof “Christian”. We exhibited the great works of our friends Ndary Lo (1961-2017) and Soly Cissé. It is a place that we call the Space of Promises because it is a gathering place of the Saint-Louis school, made up of young photographers that we have selected, from Saint-Louis, from Dakar, but also from other countries such as Morocco and Portugal, whose works are on display. These are the promises of tomorrow, because this is how big collectors can discover them.

Point 5 is a kind of traditional museum. There are photos that show the careers of contemporary photographers that we have identified. The building called “Ker Messaoud” symbolizes the mix of Saint-Louis. It is an old Moroccan house that has been preserved unchanged and houses changing exhibitions, but also and above all my collection.

The same applies to point 6 called “Ker Lahlou”. This is also a house that belonged to a Moroccan family, the Lahlou. It shows how Saint-Louis was a crossroads of cultures. The inhabitants of the Cherifian Kingdom arrived at the end of the 19th centurye Century and had a very strong influence on the clothing and even on the cuisine of Saint-Louis with spices such as saffron and others that recall the scent of Moroccan cuisine.

Point 7, “Ker Guillabert,” is described as a dissident. Because in contrast to the other points that are in the south wing of the island of Saint-Louis, it is in the north wing. It owes its name to a large mixed-race family from Saint-Louis, which gave France and Senegal, among others, a senator, a deputy, a minister and a mayor.

This house houses the roller coaster. The development and technique of the Suweer is told through the works of Gora Mbengue, Mbida and also Anta Germaine Gaye, my big sister, the star of the roller coaster, who knew how to recreate in the space that gave her the atmosphere that she experienced in Her grandparents’ house in Saint-Louis.

How do students and high school students who visit these museums react?

Their reaction is gratifying because we feel that they are gradually training for the arts. They even come in waves of 50, which doesn’t always make cultural communication easier. They learn a lot during these visits, which are excursions for them.

It must be said that a lot of educational work had to be done in advance in meetings with school principals, principals, teachers, as well as with residents of the neighborhood. This made it easier to set up the museum, which in some ways contributed to inclusivity.

This seems all the more important because this fragmented museum actually represents a kind of awakening of history…

In fact, it is an awakening of the history of Saint-Louis. It also comes from the passion I have always had for history since I was in high school. I went into management and management as a career, but I could have just as easily been a history teacher. Some of that stayed with me because I was always concerned with the historical dimension of companies, in management, and of course also with the families of Saint-Louis and Senegal. So when someone asks me who the artistic director of the Museum of Photography (MuPho) is, I say and assume that it is me and at the same time I am the curator and owner of the collections exhibited there.

As founder of the Saint Louis Forum, which you held in Senegal as well as in France and Germany, are you considering the same nomadic approach for MuPho?

I tell you this: Saint-Louis can and must perfume the world in the sense that the world is in crisis, Saint-Louis, a mixed city where religions and cultures coexisted, perhaps a form of reaction if we want to rethink the world from the African continent. That’s what dating is all about. In fact, the museum is a tool to better observe the world through the lens of the African continent.


Andrea Hunt

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