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287 8. Portrait Photography in a Postcolonial Age: How Beauty Tells the Truth L I A M B U C K L E Y When people evaluate the presence of beauty or ill in their lives—whether they are looking at photographs in an album or at other people walking along the street on the way to market or to naming ceremony, or running away from soldiers and armed police officers during a civil disturbance—they practice an aesthetic way of knowing the world. Despite the mass of collected data on contemporary aesthetic experience in Africa, postcolonial life is often studied and understood largely in social and political terms. Beauty, for example, usually receives little attention—it is either dismissed as a distraction from the “important work” of social and political activity, or discussed only to the extent that it is made relevant by being politicized. Drawing on ethnographic research into the practice of portrait photography in The Gambia, West Africa, this essay proposes the centrality of beauty to the way that people experience, make sense of, and participate in the postcoloniality of their everyday lives. How has life since the end of colonialism appeared to that aspect of Gambian sociality devoted to beauty? To what extent is the viability and modernity of this life contingent upon its subscription to encompassing aesthetic observances? Here I examine those aspects of political life that are contingent for their viability upon ideas and practices of beauty. Only by attending to the privileged position accorded to aesthetics in public discourse can we appreciate the importance of photographic portrait culture in establishing the modernity and sociality of Gambian postcolonial life. Liam Buckley 288 This study focuses on the significance of The Gambia’s 1994 coup d’état and the subsequent Skin Bleaching (Prohibition) Decree of 1995 to the practice of portrait photography. The coup was meaningful for its aesthetics rather than its politics that assumed the camouflage of secrecy, withholding itself from direct view. From the point of view of portrait photographers and their clients, the coup led to studios closing down, curfews canceling festivities, and the sanctions that followed which made it difficult for people to maintain their looks. The Skin Bleaching Decree signaled an attempt on the part of the state to regulate citizens’ adornment practices. The prime targets of this act were portrait photographers and their clients, often, respectively, the distributors and consumers of banned cosmetics. The coup became part of a routine discourse in terms of its effects on everyday aesthetics. Postcolonial portraiture in The Gambia clarifies a state of perception that is especially sensitive to the moral grounding of daily life. From the point of view of portrait photographers and their clients, the social changes and events characteristic of Gambian postcolonial life (for example, the building of schools in the 1970s and government corruption in the 1980s, in addition to the coup d’état of 1994) had definite aesthetics and forcefully intersected with the way that people adorned themselves. Being able to judge the presence or lack of beauty enables a form of social participation that frees people from the obligations of political life, allowing them to locate truthfulness in the possibility of beauty as the promises of nation, progress, and civic life come under fire. The 1994 coup received little coverage in the international press because it was “bloodless” and very peaceful compared with the 1981 coup attempt wherein hundreds died. At the beginning of my research in 2000, I regarded the coup as one of the privileged signs of postcoloniality and presumed that public consciousness of the coup would be articulated in terms of power, politics, and history. However, I found that no one was interested in discussing these types of issues with me. It was only when our conversations started to shift from the politics of the coup to the way people appeared during the coup that my interviewees had something to say to me that they felt was meaningful. Figure 8.1. Modou Jeng, examples of portrait styles from Brikama, The Gambia, 2000. Stenciled outlines frame the portraits. Collection of Liam Buckley. 289 Liam Buckley 290 The Appearance of Change In The Gambia, discussions of the social events and changes since the end of the colonial period frequently focus on people’s appearances rather than their political participation. Society is worth thinking about and is subject to inquiry as something that has a specific look. The gendered quality of this aesthetic discourse enables the public sphere...


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