Michel Leiris. Phantom Africa. Translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Africa List Series. 720 pp., 37 halftones, 3 fascimiles, 1 map. Calcutta, London, and New York: Seagull Books, 2017. $60 (cloth)
Editor’s Note: This essay—an extended commentary on the recently published translation of Phantom Africa—is HAN’s first joint production of Field Notes and Reviews. The Editors welcome and encourage future submissions that combine reviews of recently published works with reflections on the history of anthropology.
Phantom Africa is the diary that French writer and ethnologist, Michel Leiris, kept for almost two years, from May 1931 to February 1933. During this period, he was the secretary-archivist of the Dakar-Djibouti mission, an important ethnographic expedition financed by the French government, supported by several private donors, and organized by the University of Paris and the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro. The main goal of the mission was to collect a large number of ethnographic objects in order to renew the collection of the museum. The years between the world wars were a critical period for French anthropology because it was the moment of its emergence as an independent discipline. As a highly publicized event attached to the Trocadéro, the Dakar-Djibouti mission in particular played an important role in this process, paving the way for other ethnographic expeditions throughout the 1930s. The original French edition of the diary was published by Gallimard soon after the mission, in 1934, and now it has been published in English, translated by Brent Hayes Edwards. Continue reading