Adama Sylla, doyen of Senegalese photography, makes a stopover in the Tunisian capital

From 23 February until 30 June, the cultural association Le 32 Bis is inviting us on a journey through the work of Senegalese photographer Adama Sylla, exhibited for the first time in Tunisia. Although he is highly respected in his home town of Saint-Louis, he has been under the radar for far too long, and his images are finally going to be recognised for their true worth. Already exhibited three times in 2017 and 2020 between Saint-Louis and Dakar, then twice between Lyon and Paris in 2021 and 2023, thanks to Marc Monsallier of the Galerie Talmart in Paris, who discovered Adama Sylla when he ran the Institut français de Saint-Louis between 2017 and 2021.

Le 32 Bis (Rue Ben Ghedhahem) is a cultural association dedicated to research, creation, knowledge-sharing, exhibitions, support programmes for young artists, artist-led workshops for young audiences, performances, conferences and various other opportunities for exchange between art professionals and the general public. It is housed in the former Philips headquarters, built in 1953 and renovated in 2019. The complex comprises two buildings and four floors, and since 2021 has housed several exhibition rooms, a recently opened media library, creative workshops and a flat for artists in residence. “The main aim of 32 Bis is to promote the Tunisian art scene and consolidate its links with the rest of the world,” explains Hela Djobbi, the venue’s director. The magnificent monumental fresco that adorns the entire outside of the building, entitled “Les bâtisseurs” (The Builders) and created in 2022 by Tunisian artist Atef Maâtallah, is a real eye-catcher and makes the association easy to spot from afar in the neighbourhood.

To get to Adama Sylla’s exhibition entitled “L’Histoire de demain”, you have to climb to the third floor of the complex to reach the upper gallery. Some of the walls have been repainted a velvety red, contrasting aesthetically with the black-and-white images in various formats that tell us about the quaint charms of Saint-Louis in the 60s and 70s. It’s easy to be swept away into another time and space as we take a poetic visual stroll through a series of images: long, sleek fishing boats; portraits of families seated around an emblematic Volkswagen Beetle; women with their heads carefully plaited and dressed in their favourite flowery boubous; young people ready to go dancing wearing bell-bottom trousers and miniskirts; idle scenes of picnics; the Faidherbe Bridge, a metal structure built in the 19th century by the French colonists; slender, proud wrestlers like the ones you can still see today on the beach at Petit-Mbao on the outskirts of Dakar.

An old analogue camera from the Japanese brand Yashica (deliberately borrowed so that the new generation could learn about the technology of the time), as well as the photographer’s films and contact sheets, are also on display in an adjoining showcase. As we were unable to travel all the way to Tunis, thanks to a video also presented in the exhibition, we listened attentively as the doyen of Senegalese photography told us about his work from his living room in Saint-Louis, as if he were in the room with us. Attentive to the bodies, looks, patterns, lines and details that make up his images, Adama Sylla has been preciously collecting every moment of life in Saint-Louis, his native country in northern Senegal, for over fifty years. “Documentation is the memory of a country, because today’s daily life is tomorrow’s history”, he tells us, surrounded by the 40,000 photographs he keeps in his studio in Guet Ndar on the barbarian tongue between the sea and the river.

Born in Casamance in 1934, Adama Sylla came to Saint-Louis as a baby, where he still lives today and where he will be celebrating his 90th birthday this year. He began photography in 1957, took a multi-faceted training course at the Musée de l’Homme in Paris in 1964 (where he studied museology, museography, ethnology, ethnography, drawing, fashion photography, macro photography, press photography and ethnomusicology), and opened his own photo studio in 1965. However, it wasn’t until the 1960s and 1980s that he worked for the Centre de recherche et de documentation du Sénégal, documenting the reality of West Africa. There he covered official cultural events and political happenings on the initiative of President Léopold Sédar Senghor, Abdou Diouf, Mobutu and others.

Trained by Jean Rouch in cinéma-vérité, he became aware of the importance of documenting, archiving and leaving a record. He wanted to build up a collection of images that would crystallise the energy of this society undergoing profound change. Although he came to prominence only later, Adama Sylla is nevertheless one of Africa’s most important photographers. His contribution to the history of photography provides a better understanding of the continent and highlights the sophistication of Senegalese culture. Senegalese photographers already include Mama Casset (1908-1992) and Meissa Gaye (1892-1982). In Mali, there were also Malik Sidibé (1936-2016) and Seydou Keïta (1921-2001), both masters of studio photography, typical of African photography and widely used by local society at the time, which was desperate to be immortalised.

Saint-Louis and photography have a long history. In 1659, it was the first town founded by Europeans in West Africa. In 1860, Augustus Washington, one of the few African-American daguerreotypists to immigrate to Liberia, opened the first photographic studio in West Africa. In 1863, the first camera was sent there by the French Ministry of Marine and Colonies. Formerly known as the “Venice of Africa”, this city was once the capital of Senegal during the colonial period. It has been classified as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO to prevent it from falling into ruin. In 2017, collector and businessman Amadou Diaw set up the Musée de la photographie de Saint-Louis in a building dating from the early 20th century to pay tribute to the city’s architectural and photographic heritage. It features a diverse collection of photographs from the early days of the city, as well as from various African countries. In 2023-24, the ‘Month of Photography in Saint-Louis’ was launched, hosting a series of exhibitions in nine venues across the archipelago.

It’s refreshing to discover a bit of West Africa in the middle of the Mahgreb. The Tunisian art scene is usually dominated by local artists or those from the Mediterranean region. The opportunity given to this sub-Saharan artist by Le 32 bis takes on its full meaning in the current context, where a migratory crisis is unfolding from south to north via Tunisia. A few days earlier, Adama Sylla was delighted to receive the catalogue for the exhibition “L’Histoire de demain”, which there is still time to discover.  “When everything goes, the photos stay”, says Adama Sylla with a lovely smile.

Text by Christine Cibert.

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