Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to the Present @United Photo Industries

JTF (just the facts): A total of 114 black and white and color photographs, variously framed and matted, and hung against white and blue walls in the small single room gallery space. The prints were made between c1870 and 2013 and have all been drawn from the McKinley collection. The show was curated by Catherine E. McKinley and Laylah Amatullah Barrayn.

While most of the makers of the images in this show are unknown, the following named photographers have been included:

  • James Barnor
  • Seydou Keïta
  • Bernard Matussiere
  • Abderoumane Sakaly
  • Al Hadji Bassirou Sanni
  • Malick Sidibé
  • Adama Sylla
  • Ed. Gevaert
  • Dan. Minolta
  • Jacob Vitta
  • H. Danel
  • CL Albaret
  • Feyre
  • A. James
  • Oumar Ly
  • John Parkes Decker
  • Gabriel L.
  • Edition E. Bessieres
  • H. Roger Viollet Studio
  • Lisk-Carew Brothers
  • Collection Geo. Wolber
  • Ed. J.P. Fernandes
  • Photoholm-Lagos
  • Edit. G Calvayrac
  • L.R.
  • Keystone View Company
  • Lauroy, ed.
  • J. Geiser
  • Collection du Comptoir Parisien
  • B.W. Kilburn
  • Casimir Zagourski
  • Hougui
  • Edit. Tehakerian
  • R. Pauleau
  • Edmond Fortier
  • Thabiso Sekgala
  • Patricia Coffie
  • Fatoumata Diabate
  • Zina Saro-Wiwa

(Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When we think about the invention of photography in the late 1830s, we tend to focus on two lines of inquiry – the technological advancements that made image-making possible and the key figures who loaded up those first bulky cameras and began to document the world around them. Since these were primarily stories about white Europeans making pictures of a certain slice of life in Europe, and somewhat later white Americans making pictures of a similarly narrow definition of America, the embedded cultural biases that came with those perspectives have often been overlooked.

When photography was brought to Africa in the late 1860s, the people who delivered and initially used it were not Africans but Europeans, and so the social realities and power dynamics of image making were markedly different and less balanced than they were elsewhere. Making photographs was in essence a colonial activity, at least at the beginning, and that imperial framework infused the images that were made with a whole host of stereotypes, tropes, and outright propagandist intentions that neatly fit the common European view of what Africans were supposed to look like.

While a few of the great studio photographers from mid 20th century Africa have slowly become household names in the world of photography, the broader story of how imagery of Africans has changed since the mid 19th century has been much less well told. This smartly edited show, drawn from a single personal collection, works to remedy that failure, using photographs of African women from 1870 to the present (both vernacular and fine art) as the connective thread. And while there are many moments of individual self-affirmed joy to be found in the more contemporary works here, the early imagery is sobering, and in many cases overtly troubling, in the ways it depicts African women.

The photographs from the 1870s and 1880s that begin the show appear to have come from European-style studios, as the framing, backdrops, and posing of the sitters is largely unadorned and simplified. But even in these first pictures, the colonial motifs that will come to pervade the imagery of African women are clearly being set – the exotic or “other”, the bare chested or nude female, and the women’s work of child rearing and cooking. The images are less portraits than objectifying anthropological studies, the women often looking away from direct engagement with the photographer.

These themes, and others, are developed more fully in the works from the early 20th century. Most of these photographs were made for circulation and sale in the West, with stereographs, cartes de visites, and postcards the most common formats. There are women obviously photographed for their tribal garb, others carrying water vessels and baskets on their heads, and still others breast feeding (one image entitled “un petit gourmand”) or caring for white children. Closer in images capture the details of elaborate native hairstyles and decorative body scarring, but the way the pictures are taken (from the back, in strict profile, or deliberately anonymous) says that the subjects weren’t being photographed for their inherent individual beauty, but for their exoticism in the eyes of Westerners.

A large number of the images in this group are nudes of some kind, ranging from bare torsos to full nudes kept partially modest with a loincloth or wisp of drapery. But the poses and expressions of the sitters tell the story of reluctant discomfort and grudging cooperation – blank looks, drawn faces, and steely gazes adorn these women. When they stand exposed before the camera (with teenage puberty rites recast as “fetish virgins”), with their arms behind their heads to push their chests forward, kneeling on all fours, or lying down naked (entitled “Zulu method of sleeping”), the sexualized exploitation of the imagery is undeniable. The addition of a European dress, or a Western prop like an accordion, only makes the staging that much more forced.

But during the second half of the century, a new breed of female agency becomes evident in the studio portraits from Africa. Many forces were at work to help push this aesthetic change along: having talented African photographers behind the camera (whose consistent local presence engendered trust with their sitters), the changing political structures moving toward independence and self-reliance in many African nations, and the broader liberation of women happening worldwide.

The show rightly celebrates some of the key figures of the period – Seydou Keïta, Malick Sidibé, and Abderoumane Sakalay from Mali, Adama Sylla from Senegal, James Barnor from Ghana – and mixes images from these photographers with many other lesser known or unknown makers, showing that there was a wider evolution in approach taking place across the continent.

Women were now taking charge of their identities, allowing their beauty and individuality to come out in their studio portraits. The objectification of the earlier imagery has been replaced with active participation, the dour expressions turned into playfulness, confidence, and engagement. Old or young, these women were creating their looks – with dresses, headscarves, sunglasses, exuberant patterned fabrics, handbags, jewelry, and natural hair in most cases. Gone are the fantasies of the colonial Europeans, now replaced by the authentic aspirations of the women themselves. There are no subservient nudes or trophy exoitca, only regal portraits of matriarchs, sisterly pairings filled with formal affection, professional styles for modern women, and supportive dignified strength all around, to be shared with family and friends. The most contemporary works in the show (made in the last decade) take this feeling further, offering portraits of women that are charged with force, power, and genuine self definition.

In the past several years, we have started to witness an overdue change in the structures of how women and photography interact. Questions of who was (and is) making images of what subjects and of how the (white) male gaze defines some (if not many) photographic genres have come to the forefront, and this timely exhibit fits into that larger conversation. The earlier photographs in this show are steeped in a history that feels filled with tragic circumstances, where the real beauty and self-respect of the subjects was tempered by stereotypes the images were meant to portray. Luckily, that story turned better as Africans took control of their own image making, but that doesn’t make the hard realities and conclusions of a show like this one any easier to swallow.

Collector’s POV: Since the works in this exhibit are drawn from a private collection, there are of course no posted prices. As such, we will forego the discussion of gallery representation and secondary market histories typically found here.

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by MACK Books (here). Hardcover, 17 x 21 cm, 192 pages, with 87 color and black-and-white photographs. Includes texts by the artist and ... Read on.

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