Most of us grew up with images of African women that were purely anthropological–bright displays of exotica where the deeper personhood seemed tucked away. Or they were chronicles of war and poverty–“poverty porn.” But now, curator Catherine E. McKinley draws on her extensive collection of historical and contemporary photos to present a visual history spanning a hundred-year arc (1870–1970) of what is among the earliest photography on the continent. These images tell a different story of African women: how deeply cosmopolitan and modern they are in their style; how they were able to reclaim the tools of the colonial oppression that threatened their selfhood and livelihoods.
In conversation with fellow curator and designer Erika Massaquoi, McKinley joins us via livestream to share photos and stories from her striking and subversive work containing those images, The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women. Together, they discuss the the dignity, playfulness, austerity, grandeur, and fantasy-making of African women across centuries that are captured in the photos. McKinley also shares photos taken by Europeans of African women, and they examine the relationships between white men and the Black female sitters where—and the profound resistance expressed in unexpected ways to this exploitation. They invite us to explore the range and beauty captured in a one-of-a-kind collection of photographs—and how sewing machines and the camera became powerful tools for protest.
Catherine E. McKinley is a curator and writer whose books include the critically acclaimed Indigo, a journey along the ancient indigo trade routes in West Africa, and The Book of Sarahs, a memoir about growing up Black and Jewish in the 1960s–80s. She’s taught creative nonfiction writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Columbia University. The McKinley Collection, featured here, is a personal archive representing African photographies from 1870 to the present. She lives in New York City.
Erika Dalya Massaquoi is a designer and curator. Her curatorial work includes exhibitions for the Seattle Art Museum, the Frye Museum of Art, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) List Visual Arts Center, and the Studio Museum in Harlem. Her publications include DISGUISE: Masks and Global African Art (Yale University Press). She has taught digital media, cinema, and contemporary art classes at Yale University, NYU and The New School. Massaquoi is also founder & CEO of The OULA Company, a womenswear business that designs and manufactures vibrant garments from African Wax Fabric that are sourced globally and made in the USA.