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Catherine E. McKinley

Apr 29, 2021

The African Lookbook

A Visual History of 100 Years of African Womanhood

Bloomsbury Publishing 2021

What does it mean to tie your cloth to that of another person, as in the Ghanaian tradition, or to be in full dress? How is fashion photography in a colonial and decolonial context more than just a "look" but in fact a looking and a looking at?

Join author Catherine McKinley (she/her) and host Lee M. Pierce (they) for a discussion of these provocative questions in the context of fashion photography by and about pan-African women from the 1870s to the 1970s.

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, spanning the 150-year arc of photography on the continent, to 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. 

Featuring works by celebrated African masters, African studios of local legend, and anonymous artists, The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Womanhood (Bloomsbury, 2021) captures the dignity, playfulness, austerity, grandeur, and fantasy-making of African women across centuries. McKinley also features photos by Europeans—most starkly, striking nudes—revealing the relationships between white men and the black female sitters where, at best, a grave power imbalance lies. It’s a bittersweet truth that when there is exploitation there can also be profound resistance expressed in unexpected ways—even if it’s only in gazing back. These photos tell the story of how the sewing machine and the camera became powerful tools for women’s self-expression, revealing a truly glorious display of everyday beauty.

Discussion welcome! Connect with author Catherine McKinley on Instagram @the_african_lookbook and the_mckinley_collection and host Lee M. Pierce on Gmail, Instagram and Twitter @rhetoriclee.

Special thanks to Oslo-based Norwegian-Nigerian artist Frida Orupado (nemieppeba) for contributing a series of collages to the work to deepen the way in which we engage the original photos and their histories. 

If you enjoyed this interview you may also enjoy New Books Network interviews with Anne Cheng about Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface and Zakiyyah Iman Jackson about Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World.

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Lee Pierce

Lee M. Pierce (she/they) is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Geneseo specializing in rhetoric, race, and U.S. political culture. They also host the Media & Communications and Language channels for New Books Network and their own podcast titled RhetoricLee Speaking.
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