Photo Essays

The Glamour of 1950s Senegal in Photographs

The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Le Korsa helped restore the extensive archive of Roger DaSilva, whose black-and-white images joyfully document Senegal’s nightclubs, upscale weddings, and cultural events.

“Tante Kata/Angelique” (c. 1961), taken in Dakar by Roger DaSilva (Roger daSilva © 2018 The Josef and Anni Albers Foundation, Courtesy Xaritufoto and Le Korsa)

The Republic of Senegal is located in West Africa, with the capital city of Dakar perched Atlantic-facing at its westernmost tip. A new project sponsored by the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation and Le Korsa shows Senegal of decades past through the documentary lens of Senegalese black-and-white film photographer Roger DaSilva (1925-2008). Born in Benin, DaSilva took up photography while dispatched with the French army in 1942, documenting the wounded, and the return of concentration camp survivors after the 1945 armistice. But his work in the following decade, featuring Senegalese citizenry decked out in cutting-edge fashions at nightclubs, upscale weddings, and cultural events, capture a joyful cross-section of post-colonial African self-expression.

Nightclub-goers in Dakar, c. 1952, by Roger DaSilva
Nightclub-goers in Dakar, c. 1952, by Roger DaSilva

The Albers Foundation joined Le Korsa and the Dakar-based association Xaritufoto, in the promotion of DaSilva’s extensive archive, comprised of an estimated 75,000 negatives that were discovered in his home after his death in 2008. Some 100 of DaSilva’s negatives have been restored, and six will be presented for the first time outside Senegal, under the auspices of the Albers Foundation at this year’s Also Known as Africa (AKAA) design festival, running from November 8–11, 2019 in Paris. The festival will host 44 exhibitors, with new galleries from Germany, the Netherlands, and Mali.

Dakar, c. 1952
Dakar, c. 1952

“For decades, the anonymity of both artist and sitter has been a principal characteristic of African art and photography,” said a press release from the Albers Foundation. “The existence of this collection of images by DaSilva, including his self-portraits, resonates powerfully and underlines the strong agency and intent of the photographer as an author in full possession of his narrative.” Though DaSilva is not a household name today, in the 1960s he was recognized among the celebrity elite of his time. In pictures from the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts, DaSilva — also an actor and a tap dancer — appears in his images alongside jazz songstress Velma Middleton and Louis Armstrong.

“Madame Gomez and children,” c. 1958
Roger DaSilva with Velma Middleton, Dakar, c. 1952

The restoration of this archive by the Albers Foundation continues the foundation’s long-standing relationship with Senegal, including their support for the arts in the region via the Thread Senegal residency.  The images on view at AKAA festival will be sold, with proceeds going to Le Korsa, a non-profit founded by Nicholas Fox Weber in 2005, focusing particularly on medical care, scholarships, and education in Senegal.

Boxing club, Dakar, c. 1952
Nightclub dancers, Dakar, c. 1952
President Leopold Senghor, Dakar, c. 1968

For those interested in a vision of Senegal that captures the vibrancy and dynamism of the city of Dakar in the middle of the 20th century, the imagery of Roger DaSilva, painstakingly recovered from the brink of obscurity, will be a colorful experience, black-and-white notwithstanding.

Update 11/19/19 11:05am: The original attribution for Roger DaSilva’s photograph with Velma Middleton incorrectly referenced Ella Fitzgerald.

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