Author: Hinchman, Mark Title: "African Rococo: House and Portrait in Eighteenth-Century Senegal" Date: 2000 Institution: University of Chicago Advisor: Barbara Stafford, William B. Ogden Distinguished Service Professor Degree: Ph.D
African Rococo examines two eighteenth-century West African trading posts, Gorée and Saint-Louis. Primarily a work of architectural history, it seeks to create a 'portrait' of two towns by examining a variety of objects, chiefly houses and actual portraits. Whereas many colonial studies focus on urbanism and colonial discourse, this study looks at the domestic sphere and material objects. In establishing and conducting their domestic living arrangements, Europeans and Africans were in daily contact and thus embarked upon the process of getting to know one another.
These two trading centers were the nodes that connected African inland and coastal trade to the European dominated Atlantic trade. Goods - and people - poured into these towns, with the result that they had diverse populations, including Dutch, English, French, and Portuguese; Bambara, Moor, Tukulor, and Wolof. These towns were also notable because many of the categories by which people are identified - gender, race, nationality, religion - were not strictly defined and did not limit people's economic and social opportunities. Just one example: at one time, mixed-race African women owned the majority of the houses. These women came to be known as signares, a derivation of the Portuguese word senhora. The signares frequently married European traders and administrators, and they headed up the creole class known as habitants.
While the lack of strict categories has its admirable qualities, there is no attempt to paint a rosy picture. The most notorious inhabitants of these islands were the export slaves who faced the horrors of the middle passage.
This dissertation constitutes a challenge to how art and architecture are typically seen to have functioned in the colonial world. It probes the relationship between architecture and politics, and seriously questions that art and architecture in the colonies only had destructive properties. Even when forms of representation - a house, a portrait - were European, they could be used by Africans with willingness and intelligence. Arguing constantly for African agency, this dissertation examines the autonomy and authority Africans and mixed-race Africans exercised within these structures.
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