cover image The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women

The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women

Catherine E. McKinley. Bloomsbury, $30 (240p) ISBN 978-1-62040-353-2

Selecting from her personal collection, curator McKinley (Indigo: In Search of the Color That Seduced the World) showcases 150 studio photographs of African girls and women (mostly from Burkina Faso, Chad, Gambia, Nigeria, and other countries in the Sahel and along the continent’s Atlantic coast) in this richly detailed and immersive visual history. Spanning the 1870s to the 1970s and covering the colonial, independence, and postindependence periods, the images and McKinley’s commentary—which pays special attention to the subjects’ clothing, accessories, and jewelry as indicators of their identity and status—tell the story of exploitation and resistance as it played out in everyday life. Some of the colonial-era photos were printed on postcards as soft-core pornography for European men “battling the heavy spell of Empire,” McKinley writes, but by the time of independence (beginning with Ghana’s liberation in 1957), “dress and the camera” were “powerful decolonizing agents.” The new fashions women wore to be photographed in studios “were the dramatic proof of a conscious engagement with Pan-African and other radical politics across the continent and the globe.” McKinley also chronicles the importance of the sewing machine for African women’s self-expression and economic agency, and highlights the emergence of female studio photographers, including Ghanaian artist Felicia Ewurasi Abban. Packed with arresting images and incisive analysis, this well-conceived survey tells a powerful story of African liberation. (Jan.)