Artisanal Infrastructures: Aluminum Casting, Empire, and Urbanization in West Africa

Friday, January 4, 2019: 9:10 AM
Wilson Room (Palmer House Hilton)
Emily L. Osborn, University of Chicago
Studies of infrastructures (such as some that are featured by my colleagues in this panel) often consider massive, state-run projects – such as the construction of telecommunications systems, railroads, and highways – and the ideological principles and logistical imperatives that inform their design, implementation, and long-term effects. This paper takes a different tack by exploring the material “after lives” of infrastructure and empire. That is, it considers how in West Africa the conjunction of global and colonial forces helped to spawn new networks of mobility and materiality controlled not by the state, but rather by autonomous, independent actors.

This case study focuses specifically on artisans from Dakar, Senegal who adapted an industrialized material, aluminum, to a craft mode of production in the aftermath of World War Two. By melting down scrap aluminum and molding it into household goods, these artisans nourished demand for locally produced aluminum goods while they also built a network of casting that stretched through French West Africa and beyond. Indeed, the ubiquity of hand-crafted aluminum cooking pots and other locally produced aluminum goods in West Africa today, in the early twenty-first century, indicate that casters played an important if unheralded role in helping people to manage the rigors of urban living. Although casters are firmly part of the so-called “informal” sector, the material contributions that they have made to daily lives of people in the larger region reveal a persistent if unintended consequence of the manufacturing imperatives of World War II. They also suggest that broadening standard definitions of “infrastructure” to include other kinds of structures and processes may further enhance our understanding of the material legacies of empire.