Fifteen years ago, while on a trip to Senegal, photojournalist Laylah Amatullah Barrayn first encountered the Baye Fall, men and women of the Islamic Sufi order who walked through the capital, Dakar, dressed in brightly colored patchwork clothing, wearing long, distinctly “locked” hair, and often with amulets of their spiritual leader laced around their necks. A brotherhood, as it is known.
“I lived in the capital city of Dakar, right in the heart of the bustling municipal downtown district, Plateau,” Amatullah Barrayn tells In Sight. “Like any city center, Plateau was a dynamic mélange of commerce, traffic and culture. Each day the Baye Fall would greet me. They were men and women (ladies were Yaye Fall) who possessed a distinct aesthetic; they were immediately noticeable. Their clothes were often made of patchwork fabric. Their hair was ‘locked’ in a style similar to that of Rastafarians. They wore thick, black leather amulets stacked around their necks. Some of the younger Baye Fall were panhandlers that would request cash or that I buy them rice or sugar for their Cafe Touba. They were Sufis, or mystics, in West Africa, a fascinating side of Islam that doesn’t receive much attention, except for the Turkish Whirling Dervishes and the renown Sufi poet, Rumi.”
In 1883, Amadou Bamba Mbacké founded the Mouride brotherhood, and his disciple Ibrahima Fall would later become the namesake of the suborder, the Baye Fall, as well as the architect of a system of sustainable economics that continues to benefit Senegal to the present day. Fall stressed the importance of a humble lifestyle and manual labor. The Baye Fall considers physical labor — often expressed by farming and the construction of homes and mosques — to be an act of prayer and devotion.
“In 2013 and 2014 I retraced my footsteps in Dakar,” Amatullah Barrayn says,”and created portraits of the members of this community in their natural environments. I also ventured to Touba, the holy city of the Mourides and the Baye Fall. There in Touba are the final resting places of founder Amadou Bamba and Ibrahima Fall. It is also a major learning center and one of the largest mosques in Africa. Additionally, I traveled to other cities in Senegal. I saw the influence of Bamba and Ibrahima Fall all over the nation: from the countless murals of these two men, to the the fashion that was clearly influenced by this community. I became more acquainted with their customs, such as khassida: a unique repertoire of exquisite religious phrases that are chanted in Baye Fall mosques after evening prayers. I learned the extreme importance of physical labor with regard to their allegiance to their marabout, or spiritual leaders.
Amatullah Barrayn’s series will be on exhibition as part of the exhibit ReSignifications: European Blackamoors, Africana ReStagings at this year’s Black Portraiture[s] II, in Florence this May.