“Can We Just Be In A Kind Of Glory?” | Catherine McKinley On The Women Of The African Lookbook

The author of this expansive visual history discusses how she extracted telling details from the striking images of West African women in her personal collection of over one thousand images.

by Enrica Picarelli - Published on 05/05/2021
Untitled, S.N. Casset, Senegal Photo, Dakar - Senegal. COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook

Drawing on her collection of ‘vernacular’ and studio photographs from West Africa to curate a visual record of Black female representation,The African Lookbook. A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women gathers 130 photographs of African women taken between 1870 and 1970–a century of momentous change for African women. Largely taken by European or African men, the images convey the power play that takes place as the women pose for the camera, which mediates racial and gender hierarchies. The unnamed women are silent and presented as passive in the colonial photographs– a posture that facilitated the colonizer’s condescending scrutiny. In contrast, the post-independence photographs present self-assertive subjects with confidence and status. Even so, a women’s history—a her-story of Africa—is still incomplete more than a century later. The African Lookbook lingers on these gaps, stitching together an alternative account of female identity based on body language, fashion and style choices, and the complex relationships that connected photographers and sitters.

Our Elegants of Djenne, Undated, H. Danel, Kayes, Mali. COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook
Untitled, undated. Unknown – Benin. COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook

GRIOT: you write that most of the photographs in The African Lookbook were meant for wide circulation, sometimes even across continents. Once they left the photographer’s studio, they became agents of cultural and historical discourse. Are you contributing to this circulation of social meanings?

Catherine McKinley: We’re looking at these images in a context that’s outside of a colonial economy, so they have a very different life, but I’m aware that their circulation, even my own acquisition of these images, is still linked to that economy. I just bought a postcard from Gabon with an image by a Senegalese photographer. I bought it from somebody in Belgium, and I don’t know where he acquired it and why it was sent here. I put 20$ in an envelope and sent it to him to send me the card. It’s fascinating because we’ve lifted the colonial history of exchange and yet we’re still steeped in it. I think about that as a Black woman and non-continental African. I think about what I’m doing, what my intentions are for the archive, what the future looks like. It’s all very weighted, but in an interesting, challenging way.

I am fascinated by the level of self-awareness that your subjects show in fashioning themselves. You write that “an interstitial place of African freedom” opened when sitters posed for their portraits. Do you see similarities to contemporary photography from West Africa, and how has the transatlantic circulation of ideas and trends influenced this?

It changed radically with the Internet. The widening of people’s access to things in the past 20 years is remarkable, actually mind blowing. There is so much access now. At the same time, I’m a little bothered by the replication of certain things. I was in Ghana in 2019 and had a healthy and passionate argument with photographers about fashion photography – who it was for, and the actual value of the photography. They had a lot of heavy criticism about the kind of images we see circulating in the mainstream. I was really fascinated by that because I’m a little bit on the fence. I really like some fashion photography, even though it replicates certain colors, poses and ideas about Africa and African subjectivity.

There’s an intimacy between the photographer and the sitter. How does one spot it in the pictures?

Even if the sitter has a provocative or relaxed pose, sometimes the position of their foot, or something in their hand shows discomfort. It really varies from photograph to photograph. In images where everything looks ok, consider the clothing. For instance, in the pictures of the woman in the lingerie: how did it become part of the picture taking process? That suggests that there’s something that’s not right in the photograph. It depends, a lot of people would have spent a lot of money to sit for photos and others would have been pulled in because they were part of a community and the photographers there would call them from the street. So there are different kinds of intimacies and that’s why it’s so interesting to really read the photos, to take time looking at all the details. But there is always a power imbalance in the encounter, it’s like a negotiation in the studio. I am more fascinated with photos where the women take over the camera, even if the camera is an instrument that is violent or somehow the relationship is not correct, some just take over and own the camera. I love that.

Untitled, c. 1926-30, Unknown, Benin – COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook
L.R., First Corset, 1920, Central African Republic – COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook

Would you say that your book is nostalgic?

Yes, I struggle with that. When you’re writing against cynicism, violence and erasure, it’s hard not to go into romance or nostalgia because you’re trying to hold on to the strength. Until we balance the narrative, we have draw on that.

As an American, you look at African history from a certain vantage and the feedback from some readers has included references to Pan Africanism, trans-Atlantic community making as well as issues of identity, affirmation and even emancipation of Black people in the West, which is connected to the Black Lives Matter movement, etc. What kind of feedback have you received in Africa, where race, imbalances of power, and identity are felt and conceptualized differently?

The strongest reaction has been an outpouring of love for the book. If I was editing this book for an African publisher, it would be a different book. We’ve had discussions about the kind of images and their importance and what people would like. People are drawn to the honorific photos and question why I would revisit the colonial horror. There’s a sense of celebrating strong womanhood that isn’t mitigated by trauma. And I don’t think that that’s a cop-out, they’re simply allowing women their due, allowing them to exist outside the frame they’re always put in. Like: Can we just be beautiful, can we just be in a kind of glory? It’s not that the horrors don’t matter, it’s just a different reframing of self. The book took on its own life as I began to edit it. Jacqueline Woodson and Edwidge Danticat came on [to write the book’s foreword and introduction], and Frida Orupabo’s collages came in and it became much more of a diaspora project.

Untitled, c. 1960. Youssef Safieddine/Studio Safieddine – Senegal. COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook
Two Yé-Yé Girls with Sunglasses, 1965. Abdourahmane Sakaly – COURTESY of The McKinley Collection and The African Lookbook
Aunty Koramaa, c. 1975. Diamond Photo Studio No. 4, Accra – Ghana

You have often spoken about ‘care’ and a commitment to shift the power imbalance in the ‘traffic of images’ away from the continent, can you tell us a bit more about how your practice contributes to the transmission of local knowledge and how it benefits those communities?

I’m always interrogating this. First of all, I’m not going around and raiding people’s family archives. The photos are from galleries, or are gifts—sometimes from the artist, are found, or I’m buying things that are already circulating on a free market, or that have been discarded in some way. A lot of what I have in the collection was actually a rescue, because there are things that are completely devalued, forgotten, damaged, etc. And I’m not discounting the fact that there is money in this and there are people doing things that are not always best practice. I have thousands of photos now, my hope is to build an African institution, where I could create the right archival home for them and know that they would be secure into perpetuity. That would just be fantastic.

I’m having conversations with conservators, and grant people and thinking about it all the time. So that’s one piece of it. The other piece is that because of the history of their circulation, and the fact that Diaspora photographers from Brazil and the US and wider Americas were among the earliest photographers on the continent, they belong to the world, in effect, and many of us are the descendants of the people in the photographs. So, they’re my mother, as much as someone else’s mother, until the actual family comes forward and says ‘This is our grandmother’s photo.’

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I’m a writer/researcher/translator exploring fashion, cultural sustainability and digital communication in Africa. I have published on books, journals, art magazines and been a consultant for RAI national broadcaster for the documentary African Catwalk, filmed at South Africa Fashion Week, 2019.ù