Art History Arts of Senegambia
by
Peter Mark
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 June 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199920105-0089

Introduction

Senegambia, strictly speaking, comprises the nations of Senegal and The Gambia, although southern Senegal and the adjacent nation of Guinea-Bissau (Guiné-Bissau in Portuguese) have much in common in terms of climate and geography. From the first Portuguese seaborne expedition to West Africa (1444–1445), the Senegal River has been considered to mark the southern limit of the desert and the beginning of sub-Saharan Africa. From the Senegal River south to the Gambia River, the climate is Sahelian, the vegetation marked by acacia or gum trees and bushes in the north, giving way to widely spaced baobab trees along the Petite Côte, the stretch of coast south of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The Gambia estuary is a transitional climate zone, south of which increasing rainfall means that the open savannah woodland gradually gives way to subtropical forest. As one crosses the southernmost part of the Senegalese region, known as Casamance, average rainfall increases from 40 inches annually in the north to 60 inches in northern Guinea-Bissau. Culturally as well as ecologically, the forested Casamance is closer to Guinea-Bissau than to the Sahelian north of Senegal. Coastal Casamance is broken by mangrove-shrouded tidal estuaries and dense forests inhabited by a proliferation of cultural and linguistic subgroups who are primarily wet rice agriculturalists. This situation contrasts to the Sahel, north of The Gambia. There, open spaces were conducive to the establishment of expansive empires. Inland from the Atlantic, rainfall rapidly decreases. The entirety of northeastern Senegal is dry Sahel. Historically and commercially, the upper Senegal River (Futa Toro) is tied to the Mande culture zone to the east. From Futa Toro, commercial ties across the Sahara developed by the late first millennium CE, accompanied by the early spread of Islam into the region. While Islam spread throughout northern and eastern Senegal as well as through The Gambia before the 18th century, and while the Petite Côte saw the development of a Muslim political elite by the 17th century, the Casamance remained attached to local religions until the 20th century. The Jola peoples of Casamance include Muslims, Catholics, and adherents of local (Jola) religion. Across Senegambia, the differential spread of Islam has had an impact on artistic expression; only south of The Gambia are masking traditions found today.

Primary Historical Sources

European seaborne merchants arrived on the coast of Senegambia in the mid-15th century. Portuguese primary documents provide a rich font of information about the peoples and cultures of the region over the subsequent 150 years. By the 17th century, French and English traders added their firsthand accounts of Senegambia, making this part of the coast the best-documented area for West Africa before the 18th century. By the mid-19th century, increasing French interest in Senegal led to the establishment of a colonial presence. This later development was both preceded and accompanied by the reports of civilian and military personnel, whose writings provide an ethnographic baseline for the study of Senegalese colonial society and the responses of local populations to the growing French military and administrative presence.

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