From Colonial Science to African Heritage ? The photographic constellation of the Institut français d’Afrique noire

Anais Mauuarin , Julie Cayla

Keywords: Colonial Science; Photography; West Africa; France; Heritage

Participation: presential

This paper aims to highlight the contemporary issues of a photographic corpus inherited from the French colonial sciences. It will focus on the photographs produced and collected by the Institut Français d'Afrique Noire (IFAN, French Institute of Black Africa) (1936-1966), now scattered between West Africa and France. In recent years, these little-known images drew new attention from researchers and artists. This paper is part of the project photIFAN, "From Colonial Sciences to African Heritage: A Cartography and Reconsideration of the Institut Français d'Afrique Noire (IFAN)", dealing with the contemporary stakes in which these photographs are caught, as historical and scientific sources as well as African heritage.

The IFAN, founded in Dakar in 1936 and administratively managed by the General Government of "French West Africa" (AOF), played a major role in the development of scientific research in West Africa in the 20th century. It had a multidisciplinary vocation, combining natural sciences with human and social sciences. The researchers employed at the institute were entomologists, zoologists, geologists, geographers, anthropologists, etc. Besides the "head quarter" of Dakar, “Centrifans” were then created in each colonial territories of the AOF (Ivory Coast, Dahomey, Niger, etc.). Researchers worked locally in these centres which gathered documentation and photographs, and for part of them set up museums.

In line with the "documentary impulse" (Mitman and Wilder 2016) that characterized the end of the 19th century, and the policies pursued within metropolitan scientific and museographic institutions, the IFAN developed an intense photographic policy from the 1940s. Drew on the "collection paradigm", its objective was to gather visual documentation covering the "vast domain" of the AOF. In Dakar, a photo library was implemented, staff was recruited in a photo section, and operators went on tour to take photographs. Researchers also produced photographs, in addition to those taken by collaborators, administrators, missionaries, etc. At the same time, Centrifans also set up photo library and often organized their own photographic laboratory.

The production thus generated led to a colossal amount of photographs, which are now kept in West African countries and in France. On the one hand, the IFAN, renamed Institut Fondamental d'Afrique Noire in 1966, some years after Senegal’s Independence, keeps currently the historical photo library. It contains more than 100,000 photographs still organized according to the original classification. Photographs also seem to be present in countries where Centrifans were installed, such as in Saint-Louis in Sénégal, at the current CRDS (research work in progress, in dialogue with the actors of these institutions). On the other hand, several French institutions preserve important photographic collections, often arrived in France through the intermediary of researchers after the Independence: the Musée du quai Branly- Jacques Chirac, the Institut des Mondes Africains, the Musée d'Aquitaine, etc.

This paper will highlight the history of photography at the IFAN, and put into perspective the current geography of these photographic archives and collections. In doing so, it will present the contemporary stakes of these images produced in a colonial context, the currently renewed gaze of which they are the subject (in particular African and artistic ones), and the potentialities offered by some digital tools, developed within the framework of the PhotIFAN project.


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A. Mauuarin, « L’Afrique de l’Ouest dans les tiroirs. Documentation scientifique et photographie coloniale à la photothèque de l’IFAN (Dakar) », Photographica, 1, 2020, p. 78- 91.
G. Mitman and K. Wilder (ed.), Documenting the World: Film, Photography, and the Scientific Record. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
C. Morton & D. Newburry (ed.), The African photographic archive: research and curatorial strategies, London/New Delhi/New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.


Anais Mauuarin is a photographic historian, Assistant Professor and researcher at Ghent University, and in charge of the photographic collection of the Royal Museums of Art and History, Brussels. Her work focuses on the history of photography and photographic collections in the human sciences, with a particular interest in colonial historical contexts. She is the author of numerous articles and of the book A l'épreuve des images. Photographie et ethnologie en France, 1930-1950 (2022).

Julie Cayla is currently a post-doctoral fellow in the PhotIFAN project, which is devoted to the mapping, study, and development of the photographic corpus inherited from the Institut français d'Afrique noire (1936-1966). In 2021, she defended a thesis in ethnology devoted to the aesthetic experience of african art among the Burkinabè, recently awarded a prize by the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.