Archives of beauty and pain: A century of African women in photos.

6 mins read
Two Young Yé-Yé Girls with Sunglasses, 1965, Abdourahmane Sakaly, Mal

The mother and daughter tilt their heads, one towards the opposite . Their hair is intricately braided, woven with beads, and covered with a carefully knotted wrap. The lass sits on her mother’s lap; the mother’s hand, with its visible wedding ring , is placed firmly upon her daughter’s, and perfectly to signalize to the girl’s wide cuff bracelet.

The sitters for this photo, circa the 1950s, by Malian photographer Barthelely Koné, wear empire-waist dresses cut of densely patterned African cloth, their fashion a touch African, a touch European. The mother’s face is serene, open. Her slightly lowered eyes meet the viewer’s, the daughter’s even more directly.

Koné’s portrait may be a “story of inheritance”, Catherine E McKinley writes within the African Lookbook: a visible History of 100 Years of African Women, her recently published collection featuring 166 photos, including this one, taken between 1870 and 1970.

The girl within the photo, McKinley tells us, has “been given the heavily coded gifts of passage into puberty: permission to wear a mature woman’s hairstyle she has almost grown into.” Perhaps she is even being positioned as a possible marriage prospect.

The gaze of the mother and her firmly planted hand suggest a kind of unspoken but purposeful visual vocabulary, or code, at the instant of creating the image. But this photo – along side the others within the African Lookbook – also raises many questions:

The woman and her daughter: Were they willing participants within the photo? Or seated at a husband’s behest, to spotlight his possessions – his wife, his daughter, their jewellery? is that the pose their own, or was it staged by the photographer? is that the jewellery a part of the young girl’s dowry? Is that tension we see on her forehead? Was the image later duplicated by the photographer for distribution and sale? With or without the sitters’ permission?

Powerful and painful narratives
A lookbook is fashion parlance for a designer’s collection overview. Similarly, the African Lookbook – which weaves together historical photos and McKinley’s own research and musings – offers an encapsulation of, and a window into, the rich history of West African photography – and therefore the women who were at the centre of the frame.

The book also includes an introduction by the novelist Edwidge Danticat and a foreword by the author Jaqueline Woodson. Photo collages by Frida Orupabo, a Norwegian-Nigerian artist, add a layer of subtext to the pictures .

In the book, McKinley explores not only a variety of images – many from her personal archive, The McKinley Collection – but also the previously unexamined role of the photos’ female subjects, and along side it, the story of the material they wore and therefore the sewing machines that turned it into fashion. To the ladies , and particularly the sitters within the photos, the material was a way of telling a story about themselves: the print, the dye, how they wrapped it, wore it, and had it cut and sewn.

“Women are the disproportionate subject of colonial era African archives,” McKinley says, in an email dialogue. “Their images serve a really particular role within the project of empire … And yet women were ready to use photography, textiles, and therefore the home appliance for considerable power.”

McKinley, who is Black, Jewish, and Choctaw, began archiving these photos in 1991. Her initial image was of Kwame, the houseboy she met on her first trip to Ghana. “When I left, he gave me a photograph of himself in his church clothes, on a bike, holding a chicken flapping its wings,” says McKinley.

Collecting these images became a passion and a commitment for her, and maybe a replacement for the dearth of family images available to her as a toddler whose youth was spent in care . She was later adopted by WASP parents.

Says McKinley, “When I did find Black community, the very fact that I had no concrete origins and looked hard to put racially … was a stigma. Photos became everything. Once I had photos of my family I had a passport in.” Archiving these photos was an act of taking control of her personal heritage, also as her collective heritage, of connecting with the ancestors, of art-historical preservation, and of self-preservation.

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