The images from Ebony, Essence, etc. acted as counter-narratives to those of National Geographic and the war and poverty porn of the Western media that dominated the ’70s on.

But they created a troubling mythology in their attempt to establish a respectability politics of prestige: a focus on ancient kings and queens; music and sports celebrity; modern royalty; and the pomp and stunning displays of power by politicians who through their US schooling were closely tied to African American leadership, even while they exhibited troubling behaviours on the world stage.

I was always uncomfortable with these narratives, but I also admit to being held by the seductive powers of a shining Motherland.

Untitled, c. 1930, photographer unknown, from the Collection of Aladji Adama Sylla, Saint-Louis, Senegal [Courtesy of The McKinley Collection]

…….When the [Malian photographer Seydou] Keïta images were introduced to American art audiences in the late 1990s, we saw, for the first time, everyday persons writ large … 

They were displaying their best selves, playful or somber, in a very particular economy of which the photos were a part, and their consumption was for themselves and their families and communities, and not for others seeking a restorative or self-reflexive or propaganda-driven message.

Friends Who Know What to Do, c. 1972, photographer unknown, Ghana [Courtesy of The McKinley Collection]

……There are many wax cloth producers, but Vlisco is one of the oldest and most iconic.

They are spoken of as the Chanel of Africa.

For me, they best illustrate the relationship between colonialism – particularly the legacy of the transatlantic trade – and how it was sustained by textile economies.

 It also reveals how much African women have for centuries privileged cosmopolitanism and held up modernity through their penchant for new textile displays.

…….There are untold surprises.

Each photo reveals more of a large scale social history.

Aunty Koramaa II, c. 1975 Diamond Photo Studio No. 4, Accra, Ghana [Courtesy of The McKinley Collection]

There are many, many photo archives emerging – each with its own focus and intent and professional seriousness.

I think my biggest surprise is the fact that there was such an utter dearth in the documenting and study of African women photographers, and also of interest in the stories of the female sitters, who hold up the archive with their beauty and pain.



NBA note; The collection of photos comes from the recently published book:

The African Lookbook

A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women

Catherine E. McKinley (Author), Jacqueline Woodson (Foreword), Edwidge Danticat (Foreword).

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