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The Gift of Presence

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Captured between 1907 and 1927, a French colonial photograph has turned out to be a premier object of an Islamic group’s life in Senegal and its worldwide diaspora. This is a picture of Amadou Bamba (d. 1927), a charismatic Sufi leader who founded the community known as the Mourides in 1883. The photograph is the only known likeness of the man and was published in a book by an administrator whose charge was to describe Muslim groups in French West Africa for purposes of surveillance and colonial control (Marty, Études sur l’Islam au Sénégal, 1:221). The image acquired quite a different life from its intended purpose once Bamba’s followers excerpted it from the original source and began to replicate it endlessly in multiple forms.

The Mourides are a prominent community in Senegal and as migrants in numerous other countries. They constitute an extensive international network known for its prosperity and distinctive religious practices that overlap with expression in music and other art forms. Due both to his own eventful life and Mourides’ worldly success, Bamba’s biography and image have received extensive scholarly attention.

To consider aspects of Bamba’s image, we can begin with the following careful description of the photograph:

The black and white photograph shows a man standing in front of the wooden building. In the blinding daylight, Bamba squints in an effort to look at the photographer, whilst we too struggle to see his gaze enveloped in a dark shadow surrounding his eye sockets. As the Saint strains his eyes, his cheeks come up and his forehead crimps creating across his face strong shadows that alternate with achromatic areas reflecting the bright sunshine. A radiant white scarf covers his head, with one end falling at knee-height, and the other arranged across the face and over his shoulder concealing his mouth and chin. Made with the same immaculate textile, his abundant boubou reaches his ankles revealing one foot on a leather sandal. Echoing the garment’s flared shape, the bell sleeves are wide and hide both of Bamba’s hands. Alongside his hands, eyes, and mouth, the Saint’s right foot also disappears into an indistinct shadow of his full body on the uneven surface of the fine white sand (Paoletti, “Searching for the Origin(al),” 326–327).

In interpreting the photograph for religious purposes, Bamba’s followers have been especially attentive to the balance between the visible and the invisible in the image. Having seen a photograph like this, one would be hard pressed to recognize the person if they were to see his face in full or if he were wearing different clothes. But once the image is iconized—become a body onto itself—and widely replicated, the invisibility of half the face, the hands, and one foot becomes a mark of distinctiveness. The man’s partial hiddenness makes the image in the photograph highly recognizable.

As a still photograph, Bamba’s image is the record of a particular moment in the past, when the man stood in front of a camera in circumstances not known to us. Directly controverting this understanding, Bamba’s followers have seen it as an active agent in the various presents they continue to inhabit. In the religious interpretation, the only reason the photograph exists is because Bamba chose to make himself available, not to colonial authorities but for the benefit of his existing and future disciples. As the Mourides have seen it, the in/visibility of the man in the image makes him perpetually emerging and dissolving back into shadows.

The play of light in the photograph has infused motion into the still image, turning Bamba’s saintly body into a reflector transmitting divine blessings into the material sphere. For this reason, the photograph is seen as Bamba’s gift to the world. The image is replete with baraka, here understood as “an active energy that heals, protects, and helps them in countless other ways. Mourides often brush their fingertips over or kiss Bamba’s portrait, or touch smaller images to their foreheads to receive God’s baraka from the picture” (Roberts and Roberts, “Mystical Graffiti and the Refabulation of Dakar,” 56). For all these activities, constant replication of the image is a necessity. This is a case where making copies enhances the potential of the original.

Wall painting of the same figure from above clad in white alongside another man in black, a lion, the kaaba, a white dove, and another figure with a golden headdress also framed by another illustration of the kaaba.

Mural on a wall in Dakar, Senegal.


Wikimedia, Erica Kowal, 2006 (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


The Gift of Presence

The Generosity of an Image

Bamba’s image has not remained fixed in the original framing. As a symbol of power, it can be found in collages depicting religious authority from graffiti on city walls to posters and t-shirts. From the vast corpus instantiating its usage, I focus on three recent art works that pertain especially to Bamba’s life story as a valued Islamic past.

In Sufi thought and practice, it is common for a saintly figure’s life to be narrated in a stylized form with an emphasis on miraculous deeds. This pattern is discussed in the section “Documenting the Living Dead” in chapter four. Hagiographical narratives that result are pedagogical tools as well as ways to affirm the authority of the saintly figures and their successors. Bamba’s life as celebrated by the Mourides falls squarely in this pattern, with some stories pertaining to his defiance of colonial authority acquiring special purchase on people’s imagination. The stories’ narrative forms have also been transferred to the visual sphere through art in various media.

Bamba descended from a family of religious adepts and began acquiring religious and social significance in the middle of the 1880s. In this period, the French colonial state was keen to solidify its authority in West Africa, which sometimes led to conflict with alternative loci of power such as Sufi masters. As a part of this dynamic, Bamba was called for questioning at a colonial tribunal and was then exiled to Gabon for seven years.

Painted representations of Bamba’s career carry forth many elements from the iconic photograph: his clothing, the half-covered face, and lines arching upward on the forehead. Although not a reproduction of the photograph, Bamba’s images in the paintings convey the photographic image as a kind of essence transposable to other scenes where his historical presence is needed. Based on the logic deployed here, in whatever context one might need an image of Bamba, the undated photograph that captured an unknown event can be brought into service.

In one painting, he is shown able to extract himself from bondage on a French ship to spread a prayer rug on ocean water and perform the ritual. His captors—a French soldier, a woman, and a priest wearing a cross—look on, unable to do anything. At the same time, angels with swords descend from the sky to protect him and sea creatures line up in the water as if to be led by him in prayer. As all this happens, Bamba’s figure replicates the posture familiar from the photograph.

During a period of incarceration, Bamba is supposed to have been immured in a room equipped with spikes on the walls and the floor to prevent him from praying. He breaks out of the room and, upon exiting, is met by protecting angels, his mother, and an authority no less significant than the Prophet Muhammad himself. He is presented here with his back to the viewers, the prophetic form being recognizable from the brown nimbus around his head. Bamba is, again, in the posture of the photograph, reaffirming the image’s status as a marker of his essence preserved and transmittable materially.

The last image I will share takes us to the copious amounts of Arabic poetry Bamba is said to have composed, especially during periods of exile in Gabon (1895–1902) and Mauritania (1903–1907). In this instance, a hyper-stylized face, recognizably derived from the photograph, anchors the composition by being placed at the top right corner. This image acts as the name of the author, placed at the head of the textual part of the composition that corresponds to one of his famous poems entitled Beneficial Gifts of Intercessory Eulogies (Mawahib an-nafi’ fi mada’ih ash-shafi’). The text itself is presented in two versions. One is in black and white, in columns on the left side of the work, that looks almost like a photocopy from a manuscript in West African Arabic script. The second is in vivid colors, elaborately calligraphed into multiple sizes and molded to fill all the available space. Part of the text seems also to form two animals, with eyes looking toward Bamba’s face.

In the vast and growing usages of Bamba’s photograph, a single moment in the past has been iconized to represent the man’s whole sacred biography. The image represents the man through a play on light and dark, colors that have particular valences in the religious system of which the photograph has become a part. Although the saintly body’s form is in white, the darkness is by far the more generative aspect of the image. It frames the body and is also, symbolically, the unseen realm from which divine actions and Bamba’s own continuing gifts continue to come upon the world long after the perishing of his body.

The photograph acts as a mobile shrine of the saint, able to be taken with a follower and be placed within depictions of all scenes pertaining to his life. The photograph’s story is a phenomenally compact encapsulation of a group’s past, present, and future, lodged in an image that came about through the refraction of light in a camera held by hands unknown to us.

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