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Glass Painting: the Storytelling Griot of the Signares

Fashionably dressed to the nines in their striking gowns, headwear, and jewelry, it is no surprise that signares became a staple and iconic image in the medium of glass painting.

by Chrysanthe M.

High on the dining room walls in our house are several representative portrait paintings of African women of the 15th century. They’re representative because the paintings are depictions of members of a class of women called Signares. Signares were African women who married or were the mistresses of Portugese traders (including slave traders), first in the 15th century, and with other Europeans in the centuries that followed. Many of the Signares of note were centered on the island of Gorée, off the coast of Senegal near Dakar. In many original African societies, while the men hunted for game meat, the women took charge of the domestic domain. This often included farming the land, and trading the produce and other goods sold at the market. Their commercial experience served them in dealing with the Europeans, with whom they were often partners, and served as translators and guides to local culture. The slave trade was notorious and dirty business, but a whole society existed around it, and the Signares who were free women operated in it, and made the most of it. They were given credit for being tenacious and clever, often competing with the men. They became prominent, powerful and wealthy in their own right, and were often noted for their beauty. Fashionably dressed to the nines in their striking gowns, headwear, and jewelry, it is no surprise that they became a staple and iconic image in the medium of glass painting.

The practice of glass painting is thought to have originated in Syria and Iraq around 1500 BC. Influenced by the flattened forms of Byzantine artwork, the practice traveled a circuitous route to Europe via Asia and North Africa by the 14th century AD. It enjoyed great popularity and production in Asia, North Africa, the Middle East, India and China. In Europe, its demise was result of the invention of chromolithography 1830—1850.

At that time in French territories in west Africa, Muslim pilgrims from Senegal to Mecca would return with glass paintings of imaginary religious scenes, like those they had first seen in the shrines. Local craftspeople quickly took to the practice, copying the works they saw. They improvised, using local tools and Chinese ink, paper and brushes. Although the practice began with the Muslim faithful, it soon became a common practice by any artist that wished to use the technique. Not unlike European religious paintings based on the Bible, many of the early works depicted scenes from the Qur'an and Muslim teachers in various brotherhoods. This was in defiance of the French colonial ban on such imagery.

The glass painting genre has never gone out of style, and things have changed and become more inclusive over time, going from religious imagery of the Qur'an, the Bible, and leaders of sects and mosques, to social commentaries and portraits. The earliest practitioners were self-taught, copying earnestly from the original artworks brought back by religious pilgrims. In time, however, the proficient self-taught craft painters took on apprentices to whom they taught the form. As the glass painters grew in number and the medium's popularity spread, new themes and diverse styles were emphasized.

In the 1920s and 1930s photography became established there, and the wealthy Senegalese used it to document their lives. Glass paintings became photographic backdrops, and flourished with photographs mounted on them, sides and tops painted in decorative designs. Yet photography proved too expensive, its supplies too difficult to obtain and replenish, in colonial Africa. Glass paintings became the established medium for commissioned portraits from life, and family scenes.

Non-commissioned glass-paintings were often of beautiful women, called élégantes, with special attention given to their hairstyles, head coverings and jewelry, plus clothing and accessories that indicated status and ethnicity. The early style of these was of flat, frontal images painted on a background in a neutral tone. Details and shapes came through ink outlines.

The painting is done in reverse of traditional western painting process, with the outline drawn in ink first of all. Next, small details and embellishments are filled in, then the larger forms are filled in with oil paints. The background is painted last of all, and the entire project is completed on the back side of the transparent glass. What the artist sees is the reverse of the viewer will see. This is not as simple as it may seem, for the paint must be built up layer by layer, and sometimes baked to insure adhesion to the back of the glass. The glass painting is backed by a stiff material and taped around the edge. The painting may then be framed, but is often not.

The early painters did not sign their work, and although it was very popular, was almost an underground or unheralded, unrecognized art form. Early painters called themselves the School of the Streets. The first wave of apprentices opened up the form and made it less static and formal. Instead of using templates or tracing to place the image, some began to draw directly in ink or paint upon the glass. Some of these new painters based their subject matter on local histories, and the dreams or victorious actions of local warriors. With the growth of tourism and broader interest, the images and their meanings expanded to include legends, myths, proverbs and cultural histories. The age-old conflict between man and woman and moral overtones appeared in some of the works. Some artists tried mixed media experiments with collage and home made dyes.

The glass painters’ third generation are those with recognized training by approved art centers and schools. Long ignored by mainstream institutions and galleries, the trade of glass painting was left to the bustling street markets. By the 1970s that identity began to change. The Senegalese government supported the founding of a workshop, and slowly local galleries began to show and sell glass paintings. The marketplace has moved to more formal settings, traveling shows and cultural centers in Dakar and other cities.

Women with formal educations entered the mostly-male domain. One of the most notable and successful artists is Anta Germaine Gaye. Born 1953 into a wealthy family, she had an early and enduring interest in art, and her studies at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar led her to study the Signares and their history.

Ms. Gaye felt a personal connection with them, as part of her heritage as a descendant of one of these women. She and other artists in the 1980s expanded the glass-painting form with more colors, the outlines softer and irregular, or with a massed textural effect. Although the presentation was flat, the images seem more layered and visually fractured, to offer a more dynamic view than in the past. Sometimes referred to as fixé, the mottled look came from the laying of paper over the wet painted surface of the glass, causing the paint to crack and blister as it dries.

The history of glass painting in Senegal is long, and rich in detail. Its flatness reminds this collector of the classic Japanese ukiyo-e woodblocks that so inspired 19th century French artists. The glass painting art form may not have been founded in West Africa, but was taken up there in full vigor as a keeper of culture, a storyteller, a visual griot for its time, today.

Click to see A Gallery of Glass Paintings of Signares.

Chrysanthe M. is an artist and photographer inspired by African culture and her travels.

For more information, please see In Senghor’s Shadow by Elizabeth Harney, and Africa Through the Eyes of Women Artists by Betty LaDuke.
Anta Germaine Gaye photo from

Copyright © Chrysanthe M. All rights reserved.