In 2016, I completed a month-long artist residency in Saint-Louis, Senegal. I arrived in Senegal, intending to complete a project about post-colonialism by photographing portraits of people who live in Saint-Louis, and photographing the city’s colonial architecture. By plunging myself into a country and city whose history could not be more intimately intertwined with colonialism, I naïvely thought that my anxieties around these subjects would clarify and resolve. Instead, my short time in Saint-Louis was deeply challenging for me. Initial culture shock gave way to anxiety, which emerged from my discomfort speaking French, my total inability to speak Wolof, my mental health challenges, homesickness, and my very visibly white, female, tattooed self.

I have come to realize that the only honest work I can make about this place must be about me, and my experience of it. This work depicts some of the people I met in Saint-Louis, the scraps that I collected throughout my time there, and some of the memories and thoughts that shape my understanding and recollection of my time there. I am conscious of the fallibility of photographs and memories, of the fallibility of my own interpretation of my time in a city, a country, a continent that is not my own. And yet I present these works.

Photographs can injure, even those that are gentle. Perhaps especially those that are gentle. Do these works complicate an understanding of Senegal? Do they create an understanding of Senegal? Do they undermine an understanding of Senegal? Do they tell any truths at all? It is for my viewers to decide.

photograph of this work installed at the Ottawa Art Gallery by  Sean Sytsma

photograph of this work installed at the Ottawa Art Gallery by Sean Sytsma

PORTRAITS

What makes a portrait? How can a thirtieth of a second of someone’s life comprise a complete portrait of who they are as a person? Even though a photograph seems to be a truthful, unmanipulated version of reality, in truth it is as subjective a representation of reality as a painting, its subject and author both biased in their approach to the making of the photograph, not to mention the viewer.

These portraits, of people I met while I was in Saint-Louis, are the record of an interaction between myself and my subjects. I photographed them in the clothes in which they arrived, directing their posture and expressions in my imperfect French. Some of these interactions were magic; one of my subjects agreed to sit for me after I bought a painting of his off the street, then telling me after our shoot that it was his birthday. Others were short, me taking three frames and knowing I needed nothing else. Each photograph here contains a piece of the life of each subject, but also a piece of me - my body holding my camera can be found enclosed in the eye of each of my subjects.

“...When the sitting is over - when the picture is done - there is nothing left except the photograph. ... If I meet them a week later in a room somewhere, I expect they won't recognize me. Because I don't feel I was really there. At least the part of me that was...is now in the photograph.” - Richard Avedon

“Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me.” - Richard Avedon

STILL LIFES

From early childhood, I have collected and held onto objects: leaves, flowers, scraps of paper, stones, plastic toys, etc. This habit attained its height when I reached my teens and early twenties, as I began to experience loss and trauma. Objects and photographs have often acted as melancholic memory aids for me when the people or circumstances associated with them are no longer accessible, or cause me distress.

When I was in Senegal, I continued this practice, collecting plant detritus, papers and other scraps. These objects’ strangeness echoed the way I felt about my time there, and are reminiscent of the funny, the uncanny and the transcendent memories I associate with my time in Saint-Louis.

These works also include photographs from my own familial archive. I am a child whose mother was born into exceptionally colonial circumstances, whose grandfather managed a tea plantation in a developing nation in the 1950s, and who now lives on unceded Algonquin territory. Colonialism’s benefits for me and my family are undeniable. These works are a reflection upon this privilege, in the context of my time in the African city called Saint-Louis.