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103 3. Yoruba Studio Photographers in Francophone West Africa É R I K A N I M I S In early 1997, while doing a field study on photography as a profession in Niamey, Niger, I realized for the first time that the portrait studio photographers of this city of the Sahelian region were mostly foreigners and, more specifically, that they came from three coastal countries: Togo, Benin, and especially Nigeria. Moreover , all Nigerian photographers were born in either Igboho or Shaki, two small cities in the state of Oyo in the predominantly Yoruba cultural area in the southwestern part of Nigeria. This gave birth to my hypothesis that these photographers could have played an important role in the development of commercial photography in Niger, if not more widely across francophone West Africa. Why the “Yoruba”? Before moving on, I should clarify certain points regarding my decision to study theroleof“Yorubaphotographers”inthedisseminationofportraitstudiophotography in West Africa. First, in all the countries of the area where I have conducted research (Mali, Niger, Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Benin, Ghana, and Côte d’Ivoire), commercial photography (in this case the term essentially refers to the production of portraits for public and private use) started as the domain of itinerant photographers working in outdoor marketplaces, who came mostly from the coastal regions of the Benin Gulf, namely from Ghana and Nigeria.1 Moreover, there is a Érika Nimis 104 strong link between the old trading posts (the first sites of European settlement) and the beginnings of photography in West Africa.2 In Lagos, Nigeria, the first professional studios were owned by Sierra Leoneans (Saro) and Afro-Brazilians, former freed slaves and their descendants who themselves were mostly of Yoruba origin. Having gained considerable knowledge after years of living abroad, once they were back in their homeland they came to form the intellectual and professional elite of Lagos and other Nigerian cities such as Abeokuta and Ibadan. They passed on their technical knowledge to native people who were for the most part schooled in Christian missions, which were well established in Yoruba country. Influenced by European values and techniques, the “Saro” and the “Brazilians”— true “cultural intermediaries”—quickly developed new needs, created new habits , and influenced a new generation by passing on their skills to the locals.3 In 1997, in Niamey, all my informants employed the term “Yoruba” rather than “Nigerian” when referring to the above-mentioned photographers from Oyo State, although they would speak of the Togolese or Beninese ones without specifying ethnicity, for instance if they were Mina or Fon. Derived from the Hausa language, the term “Yoruba” means “people from Oyo” and refers above all to a linguistic group.4 During the nineteenth century, missionaries and the British colonial administration appropriated the term, looking to unify a region that had long been shattered by war.5 Thus, the name “Yoruba” became “a colonial creation , which included a group of social entities whose members claimed a common culture.”6 Another point that raises a number of questions is the association of a linguistic community, an ethnic group, or even a nationality with the dissemination of a given technique or profession. In the 1960s and 1970s, Africanists such as Suzanne Bernus and John O. Igué did not have second thoughts about fusing the profession/nationality categories in order to explain certain phenomena found in urban settings.7 However, since the 1980s, several studies on artisans and merchants have warned against this type of association.8 Indeed, if in the sixties and seventies West African societies were highly compartmentalized according to ethnic and sociocultural origin, perhaps a pattern inherited from the colonial period, then the economic crisis of the eighties and nineties brought forth their decompartmentalization and forced citizens in certain countries to explore new fields of work, some of which had heretofore been the private hunting ground Yoruba Studio Photographers in West Africa 105 of foreigners. Which is why, starting in the eighties, several researchers have advisedagainstthestudyofprofessionaldistributionbasedonanethniccriterion. The subjects of my own research were mostly active during the earlier period. The photographers in this study all come from the same region, located on the northern margins of the Yoruba space, a Sahelian agricultural region, poorer than the South and isolated. Igboho, Shaki, and Ejigbo are former satellite towns of Oyo-Ile, capital of the kingdom that bears the same name. Ever since the fall of the Oyo Empire in the 1830s, there have been significant movements of people in and out of this region. For...


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