The history of Black women in pre-colonial and colonial Africa often generally from erasure as there is often very little left in the public consciousness about their stories, their private aspirations, and their places in society. In recent times, however, there have been efforts to reclaim that history, such as the 2019 Awani documentary and the yet-to-be-released Queen Amina biopic. The latest of such efforts is The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women.
Collected by Catherine E. McKinley, an American writer and curator, the book features 150 portraits of Black African women—mostly from Chad, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, and Ghana—photographed between 1870 and 1970. The photographs, captured primarily by African artists like Seydou Keita and Youssef Safieddiene, cast the women in light of fashion, girlhood, friendship, festivity, trade, domesticity, motherhood, worship, servant-hood, and royalty.
The pictures are accompanied by texts to highlight the significance of their clothing, jewelry, poses, and facial expressions, while situating them within the context of the pre-colonial, colonial, and post-colonial periods.
According to McKinley, who has a Black father and a Jewish mother, she was inspired to pursue the project partly because of her need to connect with an ancestral mother figure situated within the continent.
“This project was somewhat about that— inheritance, a search for our foremothers, and likewise for ourselves,” she said. “Keeping this archive over the years, and this intimate caretaking of the photographs has also been an act of caretaking of ourselves, of those other women [in the photographs], and of Black women globally. This project is really an act of love.”
Edwidge Danticat, the Haitain-American novelist who wrote the foreword, described the book as “a compilation of heirlooms that embody both memory and agency.”
However, the history of these photographs is not as untainted as it appears. Some of them were taken by European men whose voyeuristic gaze resulted in images where the women were stripped of their clothes and agency. According to Danticat, the book also has moments where the images were captured without the permission of its subjects and then taken around the world to be displayed as softcore pornography for the eyes of white men.
As the years passed, the visual history in the book took an increasingly progressive turn, with the European gaze disappearing with the rise of artists such as Felicia Ewurasi Abban, Ghana’s first female photographer.
Roughly around the time of Ghana’s independence in 1957, the pictures showed “a conscious engagement with Pan-African and other radical politics across the continent and the globe.”
In the end, Danticat notes that the origins of the pictures are complex but they serve a purpose for posterity: “Some were made against people’s will or knowledge, but others were images that they framed themselves, that they prepared themselves for, they dressed and paid for, because they considered them treasured objects. So, really, I feel like we’re being granted those images as gifts. They were meant as heirlooms.”
Kanyinsola Olorunnisola is a journalist, social critic and literary enthusiast. He is the recepient of the 2017 Fisayo Soyombo National Essay Prize, the 2020 Speculative Literary Foundation’s Diverse Writers Grant and the 2020 K&L Prize for African Literature. He is the founder of SprinNG, a platform dedicated to the development of young African writers.