Ile Gorée – Zahra Moloo

Sandy yellow streets, crumbling ruins of old colonial buildings overlooking the Atlantic: the sleepy island of Ile Gorée, only two kilometres away from the chaos of Dakar, has for a long time played a part in historical imagination. The Maison des esclaves (the House of Slaves) is one of the island’s main tourist attraction, where visitors can learn about the horrors of the slave trade, where they are told that millions of slaves were bundled together into small enclosures before being shipped away across the ocean. UNESCO named the island a World Heritage Site, stating on its website that “the various elements of this ‘memory island’ – fortresses, buildings, streets, squares, etc. – recount, each in its own way, the history of Gorée, which, from the 15th to the 19th century, was the largest slave-trading centre of the African coast.” But some historians dispute the importance of the island in transporting slaves to the new world. They argue that other sites have greater historical authenticity and are more accurate testaments to the horrors of the slave trade.

This idea of Gorée as a ‘memory island’ is curious. Wandering through the House’s numerous displays and the streets of Ile Gorée, many visitors are visibly shaken imagining the conditions in which the slaves were supposedly kept. The island and its House of Slaves have a symbolic and emotional significance, but are they based on mere supposition, on a present re-construction of history that manipulates the past? The re-imagining of history, the imagined spectacle of suffering on the island has become a profitable enterprise, as it is in many parts of the world. What is truly authentic about Gorée when the visit itself is part of a constructed tourist experience?

This painting is also a re-construction, a re-imagining. Not a tragic one of the past, designed to play on emotional memory, but simply of everyday life in Gorée. The sun beats down mercilessly on a Sunday afternoon. The island’s inhabitants cover their faces, take a rest in the shade, stroll leisurely down the streets. There is nothing particularly remarkable about the scene and the painting itself was inspired only by the desire to depict the kind of life that is found here on this specific street, in this place, a place like any other, and unlike any other. Colour and light combine to show the streets of Gorée as warm, inviting, and transformed from their original sharp contours; the magic of Ile Gorée is as simple as perceiving an ordinary scene in an extraordinary way, transforming the everyday into a sun-washed scene that invites the viewer to walk the same streets as they are now…

An ordinary present takes the place of a constructed past.

Zahra Moloo is a journalist and painter, currently based in her hometown of Nairobi.