- Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1758–1837 by Mark Hinchman
Mark Hinchman's book Portrait of an Island: The Architecture and Material Culture of Gorée, Sénégal, 1757–1837 examines architecture, images, documents, and objects to provide a nuanced picture of Gorée, a small Senegalese island which functioned as a principal trading post of the Senegambian region during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As a trading center, the island was exceptionally diverse economically, culturally, racially, and in material goods. Likewise, its size facilitated a particularly interconnected society of signares, a class of mixed race women of wealth and stature; Europeans of various occupations; free blacks; and slaves, both those who lived and worked on the island and those held for sale abroad. Hinchman argues that this diversity, while premodern, anticipates contemporary issues of globalism, multiculturalism, and shifting identities. [End Page 95]
Beyond providing the reader an understanding of what life was like on Gorée during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Hinchman demonstrates the need to look beyond the grand narratives of history which focus on political conquest, macroeconomics, and major monuments. While these serve a purpose, according to Hinchman, "a history that ignores the lives of ordinary people and ordinary circumstances misses most of the picture" (p. 211). In this spirit, his methodological approach is heavily anecdotal. He analyzes architecture and delves into the archival materials in an effort to uncover the stories of individual lives.
Portrait of an Island builds on Hinchman's career of teaching and research in design history, global modernism, and architectural history. He wrote the interior design textbooks History of Furniture: A Global View (Fairchild, 2009) and The Dictionary of Interior Design (Fairchild, 2014), and coauthored, with Elyssa Yoneda, Who's Who in Interior Design (Fairchild, 2016). He has also published several articles and book chapters on the history of Gorée, on early modern West Africa, and on African urbanism. This book comprises the interests manifest in earlier studies, while providing new information in a coherent and insightful text.
Portrait of an Island is divided into an introduction, six chapters, and a conclusion. While the introduction presents the book's purpose and theoretical framework, the first chapter discusses the architectural traditions of the region, its trade goods, and the urbanization of Gorée. In the early eighteenth century the island roughly comprised three villages nestled in a natural landscape. However, a major fire in 1761 and an outbreak of yellow fever in 1778 left the island vulnerable to short-lived waves of English occupation, cleared the island for urbanization, and began a period of building in "permanent" materials (fired bricks and stone instead of earth and vegetation). In this chapter, Hinchman uses cartography to discuss the memory of landscapes. His analysis of a series of maps reveals not only Gorée's changes during this period, but sometimes documents plans that were never realized and thereby reveals certain hopes and ambitions. While maps are often perceived as impartial documents, Hinchman reiterates postcolonial scholars before him by recognizing maps' inherent biases as necessarily selective, reductive, and dependent upon perspective.
The second chapter, "The Built Landscape: Architecture and Urbanism," shifts the discussion of urbanization from the island as a whole to an analysis of individual buildings. Analyzing primarily architectural plans and elevations, Hinchman divides houses into certain types and breaks down the various waves of construction on the island. Foreshadowing the chapters that follow it, this chapter acknowledges the diversity of classes and peoples within a single household and introduces different ways in which the space was divided to accommodate them.
Chapters 3 through 5 take a closer look at the inhabitants of these architectural spaces and divides them roughly by socioeconomic class. Chapter 3 considers how the wealthiest and most powerful members of society, namely the signares and upper-class...