Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 8, 2017
Mark Hinchman Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758–1837 Early Modern Cultural Studies Series. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015. 420 pp.; 78 b/w ills. Cloth $70.00 (9780803254138)

More than any other media, architecture has played a fundamental role in the organization of physical reality according to various social, cultural, and ideological templates. As both a product and producer of identity, architectural forms have inscribed the texture of human life onto the natural environment. Thus, Mark Hinchman’s Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758–1837 is a welcome addition to contemporary studies of the history of the built environment. Expanding the borders of what might be considered “traditional” architectural scholarship, Hinchman incorporates the material and object-based realm by examining structures in concert with the objects, ornaments, and individuals that inhabited them. In doing so, Hinchman creates a meticulous, compelling image of Gorée Island between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that supplements its narrative as a depot for the trans-Atlantic slave trade in bringing to light its accompanying history as a center of global capitalistic enterprise and the point of origin for an emergent brand of Afro-modernity.

To do this, Hinchman utilizes a particular methodological premise that purposefully bypasses post-1960s postcolonial theories that have long framed the colonized individual as “a passive object” (12). Pulling from disciplines that include but are not limited to economics, anthropology, and feminist studies, Hinchman connects diverse conceptual and material threads in ways that reveal the realities of the local inhabitants of Gorée as active participants in the shaping of their physical and ideological environments. In addition, Hinchman identifies Gorée’s population, composed as it was of an assortment of African and European individuals, as a group that variously and often with great finesse traversed the boundaries between economic, cultural, and political categories in order to create a highly hybrid social society. In doing so, the individuals of this community came to embody a series of fluid, contextually based identities that were subsequently made manifest within their living spaces. Using a series of case studies that address these individuals and the spaces in which they lived as mutually dependent social constructs, Hinchman creates a “social architectural history” (32) that explores how architecture came to be an assembled experience construed through the lenses of multiple personalities, with individuals bringing interpretive viewpoints that shaped the way structures operated at any given moment. In turn, this analysis reveals the fallacy of many postcolonial theoretical models that cast Europeans as one-dimensional imperial characters and Africans as disenfranchised victims of colonial aggression. Using the archival remnants of everyday Goréan life, which ranged from receipts, police reports, and wills to letters, contracts, and more, Hinchman animates diverse figures of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Gorée whose varied lives unfold through the objects, images, and structures that composed their lived reality.

Hinchman builds these stories in remarkable albeit exhausting detail over the course of an introduction, conclusion, and six chapters. Each contains a variety of subthemes, which collectively if somewhat arbitrarily produce a cross-section of daily life within this small, economically and culturally dynamic island over the course of a century. In his introduction, Hinchman lays out not only the interdisciplinary thrust of the volume, but also its literary precedents, its primary source material, and the particulars of his theoretical approach. The dissertation-style cadence of the introduction is somewhat off-putting, but fortunately gives way to a lucid discussion of the cartographic, urban, and infrastructural development of Gorée over the eighteenth-/nineteenth-century divide in the first chapter. This chapter also addresses the commercial and economic components that enabled Gorée and neighboring Saint-Louis to emerge as crossroads of global commodities, which at the time included enslaved individuals, ivory, leather, and gold.

The second chapter puts this development further under the microscope, using the formal, material, and functional aspects of domestic spaces in Gorée to unpack the cultural and ethnic diversity that informed life on the island. Straw versus earth as a building material, or whether to build in square or rounded form, are only two of the numerous discussions had with regard to housing on Gorée, each eloquently expressive of the fact that architectural space, particularly domestic space, was experienced and interpreted in specific ways by groups whose specialized lenses of identity added a great deal of symbolic capital to seemingly innocuous aspects of form and material.

The remaining chapters shift the focus of this conversation to target the human component in these spaces by addressing three classes of inhabitants who transformed these structural sites into areas in which the quality of one’s structural space actively affected one’s quality of life. The “elites” of the third chapter, particularly the signares or African-born women of mixed race and often-independent economic status, are examined not only through their formal shelters, but also through the colleagues, guests, and lovers who patronized them within these domiciles. The objects, ornaments, and excesses that came to be associated with these women and their spaces not only fracture the “singular intentionality often ascribed to colonial artifacts” (149) as objects of injury, but reveals the presence of multiple views of singular house types based on the hybrid nature of Goréan society at this time. This is explored from a different angle in the fourth chapter, which delves into the intimate and often fraught social relationships and tensions that existed between individuals of different classes living within the same domestic space. Through a series of case studies of the elite and their socio-economic subordinates who existed in similar spaces yet did not inhabit them equally, Hinchman shines a light on the story of the working class, whose behind-the-scenes mechanizations allowed these spaces to function as livable dwellings and social venues. Throughout this discussion, Hinchman continues to reemphasize that architecture, when seen through socially divided lenses, does not have one reality, but in fact has many, depending on the spatial perceptions of its users whose views are shaped by the particularities of their position.

Continuing this trajectory, the fifth chapter addresses the “bottom rung,” composed predominantly of enslaved individuals whose precarious existence was largely tied to the operations of the domestic space. Whether their roles included carpentry and construction or household service, these individuals constituted a largely invisible human narrative that has long underpinned this social history but that has yet to be parsed in a dedicated fashion. This discussion also implicates architecture as a physical construct that was often used to reify the emotional and psychological servitude of the individual. This unfortunate progression terminates with the final chapter, entitled “Things: Houses and Their Contents,” of which enslaved individuals were but one object in a sea of other material goods bought, placed, and positioned within the home as reflections of the owner. This chapter, however, differs slightly from the others in that the sheer diversity of commodities on display in these houses results in a somewhat awkward “everything else” discussion in which portraits and visual imagery mingle somewhat uncomfortably with discussions of pistols, bread, and fishing poles. Yet their mutual existence within the space of these homes (and this chapter) highlights both the nature of the relationships between people and objects, and what those relationships indicate about the economic construction of a Goréan residence.

Hinchman concludes with a timely discussion of Gorée’s current reality as simultaneously a tourist attraction and heritage site, a reality oriented around one of the central domestic case studies used in this volume, the Maison d’Anna Colas Pépin. Known more popularly in the contemporary period as the Maison des Esclaves, an infamous Goréan building that acted as a trans-Atlantic slave depot, this structure has gained a new career in the contemporary period as a heritage attraction, particularly for tourists engaged in “roots” tourism. For many Americans of African descent, Gorée and the Maison des Esclaves have become something of a pilgrimage site, representing a highly emotional homecoming that somewhat ironically coalesces with the running theme of this volume, namely that “the total experience of space and architecture greatly exceeds whatever the separate architectural elements alone might suggest” (313).

Yet for all Portrait of an Island accomplishes, the most glaring omission in Hinchman’s exhaustive analysis is a dedicated discussion of Islam. As an emergent religion of the elite and merchant classes beginning in the seventeenth century, Islam became a major cultural and religious platform for resistance against French occupation during the colonial era. Some scholars have even indicated that any discussion of Senegalese history is incomplete without its inclusion (Cleo Cantone, Making and Remaking Mosques in Senegal, Leiden: Brill, 2012). Thus, a lack of engagement with this crucial historic component is a large hole in this otherwise comprehensive socio-cultural analysis.

Yet beyond this issue, the volume constitutes an enormously valuable addition to contemporary studies of the West African built and material environment through its contribution to and renovation of postcolonial theory, its erudite utilization of the archive, and its ability to give life to a historic era that most would undoubtedly assume has been lost to history. Through a consideration of “houses, portraits, and furnishings [that acted] not merely as representations of individuals with static identities but as physical objects involved in social relationships that transgressed categories” (3), Hinchman has created a very convincing portrait of an island.

Michelle Moore Apotsos
Assistant Professor, Department of Art, Williams College

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