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An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs--featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs--featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 to present a visual history spanning a hundred-year arc (1870–1970) of what is among the earliest photography on the continent. These images 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 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.


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An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs--featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs--featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 to present a visual history spanning a hundred-year arc (1870–1970) of what is among the earliest photography on the continent. These images 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 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.

47 review for The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women

  1. 4 out of 5

    Tracey Allen at Carpe Librum

    The African Lookbook - A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women is a sampling of the photographs author Catherine E. McKinley has managed to collect from all around the world and includes some of the earliest photographs ever taken of African women. However this isn't just a book of photographs to peruse. McKinley educates the reader along the way on the styles of photographs and portraits, the importance of the sitter's dress and fashion, the interest in African women and some of the undes The African Lookbook - A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women is a sampling of the photographs author Catherine E. McKinley has managed to collect from all around the world and includes some of the earliest photographs ever taken of African women. However this isn't just a book of photographs to peruse. McKinley educates the reader along the way on the styles of photographs and portraits, the importance of the sitter's dress and fashion, the interest in African women and some of the undesirable attitudes of the intended recipients of many of the photographs featured. "In European studios spanning the 1860s to 1970s, images of African women existed as a preponderance of exotica in 'women's work' - women nursing children, pounding food with mortar and pestle, selling on the street, carrying water, or posing in front of the 'primitive' home. Cameras fixated on breasts and hair, on body cicatrization, and the suggestive and even pornographic possibilities of rites of puberty, polygamy, and lightly disguised prostitution. Many African photographers working at the same time would engage these tropes, as would later eras of African photographers (1950s - present), revisiting the images of a woman's back or skin or hairstyle but in a way that, however much a male gaze still mediated, the colonial gaze was removed." Page 31 "That gaze - that moment when the sitter meets the lens with the intent to author, or perhaps where coercion, or capitulation, or shyness or some other feeling is revealed - is what we look to for a countering narrative to the photographer's, or for assurance that the sitter still has the last word." Page 32 I'll admit to wanting to see that in the eyes of many of the women photographed, a sense of power or pride and a sense the sitter wouldn't be exploited. A refusal to be dominated, their spirit free and intact. Unfortunately, I think I'm projecting a resoluteness that might not be there in order to make myself feel better about the vulnerability or poverty the sitter might have experienced. It's interesting to ponder though. Is the viewer projecting, or is the sitter really communicating something of their spirit and their inner most thoughts to us through the lens of the camera and down the decades? I wasn't expecting the focus and accompanying commentary on fashion and what the women were wearing in the photographs and it took me by surprise. "The history preserved in fashion can be more resilient and revealing than what is stored or memorialized in other kinds of repositories." Page 86 Fashion throughout the decades encompassed the combination of traditional dress with styles that indicated a woman's background or religious beliefs and was invariably captured in the portraits (many unknown) obtained by the author and preserved in her collection. I had little idea about the prominence of cloth and wrappers to African women, but learned that wrappers - referred to in the book as the 'foundation of African womanhood' on page 96 - are used for multiple purposes, including clothing, to carry a child, as currency, as a dowry, a shroud and sometimes even joined together to celebrate, protest or mourn. Some cloth designs are given a name and women or families might wear the same pattern to make a statement. "Cloth that is beloved, that is named, is considered fine enough to be a dowry item, to be worn at weddings and funerals and baby-naming ceremonies, to become a 'heritage' item in a woman's cloth box and therefore a costly commodity for the ages, historically stored and respected like money, never devaluing over a woman's life-time." Page 92 Already upset by the popularity of fast fashion in the 21st Century, this certainly gave me something to think about. If women from cultures around the world could aspire to this level of value and respect for cloth and quality made garments again (I'm thinking of 1500s here), imagine the impact around the world. The African Lookbook by Catherine E. McKinley isn't what I expected. Yes, it's A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women, but I was disappointed not to see any of the photography of African women I observed as a child growing up in Australia in the 1970s-1980s. Stunning photographs of African women featured in National Geographic magazine, adorned in body paint, or wearing lip discs or gold neck rings and arm bands. An exotic beauty unmatched anywhere in the world gave rise to the fear of colonisation and a sorrow for the ruination of small tribes and villages still practising their way of life largely oblivious to the Western world. I understand this book to be based on the author's painstaking collection of rare and precious photographs that otherwise might have been lost to time, but surely this era of colour photography shaped the worldwide view of African women and deserved to be included or commented on here. Looking at the blurb while writing this review, I note that the 100 year arc spans from 1870-1970 but I dearly wish it had been expanded to incorporate 150 years. It'd be hard to do so if the author's expertise and interest doesn't extend to the last 50 years, but the average reader has likely been exposed to this photography and it has influenced our views, rightly or wrongly. While I didn't get what I was expecting, I certainly walked away with more than I bargained for. An introduction to the trade and importance of indigo - one of the most financially and culturally valuable commodities, used in makeup, hair dye, body paint, tattooing and more - for one. The African Lookbook by Catherine E. McKinley is an informative read, and I longed to speak to the women featured in each of the photographs as I looked into their eyes and wondered about their lives; just as I imagine the author does. * Copy courtesy of Bloomsbury *

  2. 4 out of 5

    Alicia Bayer

    After 150 years of photography of African women being used for titillation, mockery and other ugly goals, this fascinating book compiles historic pictures of African women from 1870–1970 that instead celebrated who they really were. It's full of striking portraits and informative text about this complicated history. While the continent of Africa has many countries, most of these women are from a handful of them and give a glimpse into these countries' fashions, traditions, cultures and more. The After 150 years of photography of African women being used for titillation, mockery and other ugly goals, this fascinating book compiles historic pictures of African women from 1870–1970 that instead celebrated who they really were. It's full of striking portraits and informative text about this complicated history. While the continent of Africa has many countries, most of these women are from a handful of them and give a glimpse into these countries' fashions, traditions, cultures and more. The author is African American and Jewish, and works hard to incorporate respectful photos that really show the souls of these women of all ages. I read a temporary digital ARC of this book for review.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Philip

    As a big fan of band of both photography and history, I found this a fascinating "read," (in quotes, since the photos are more powerful than the text). In contrast to the usual exploitative and subliminally pornographic Western images ranging from colonial times through early Nat Geo, the photos shown here depict African women as seen (mainly) by fellow Africans, and as such present a stunning "lookbook" of a truly beautiful assortment of women. I'm a 60+ American white guy, and as such will neve As a big fan of band of both photography and history, I found this a fascinating "read," (in quotes, since the photos are more powerful than the text). In contrast to the usual exploitative and subliminally pornographic Western images ranging from colonial times through early Nat Geo, the photos shown here depict African women as seen (mainly) by fellow Africans, and as such present a stunning "lookbook" of a truly beautiful assortment of women. I'm a 60+ American white guy, and as such will never be completely free of racial and historical influences, (i.e., prejudices). But I'm working on it, and books like this are a huge help. Thanks, Catherine!!

  4. 5 out of 5

    Juliana

    I found myself questioning the way I view images of African women I grew up with and appreciate this book for that. The historical context was also fantastic.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Laura

    Thank you Bloomsbury for the ARC! So often, in the West, there is a concept that Africa is an “other” place - one so different from their own. This photo collection is the beginning of a long overdue movement to correct this imperial narrative. Through this small collection of photos, McKinley leads the reader through history, fashion, and other cultural elements of African nations. You’ll learn so much from this brief read - you’ll want to go back and read it again and again! As a person who lov Thank you Bloomsbury for the ARC! So often, in the West, there is a concept that Africa is an “other” place - one so different from their own. This photo collection is the beginning of a long overdue movement to correct this imperial narrative. Through this small collection of photos, McKinley leads the reader through history, fashion, and other cultural elements of African nations. You’ll learn so much from this brief read - you’ll want to go back and read it again and again! As a person who loves old photos, this is a priceless book. Bringing history to life, seeing women who are smiling and relentlessly taking charge of their own lives, is empowering.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Andréa

    Note: I accessed a digital review copy of this book through Edelweiss.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Sophia

    The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley Published January 19, 2021 An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs—featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 po The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women by Catherine E. McKinley Published January 19, 2021 An unprecedented visual history of African women told in striking and subversive historical photographs—featuring an Introduction by Edwidge Danticat and a Foreword by Jacqueline Woodson. 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 to present a visual history spanning a hundred-year arc (1870–1970) of what is among the earliest photography on the continent. These images 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 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.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Paula’s Not So Secret Diary

    I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. For decades, Catherine E. McKinley collected hundreds of photographs from numerous African countries depicting women in various outfits, poses, and studio settings. The photographs date from 1870 through the 1970s. Each image is accompanied by Ms. McKinley's expert and deeply researched commentary, offering readers insights into the photographers behind the camera and the type of dress the subjects are wearing. More importantly, she I received an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review. For decades, Catherine E. McKinley collected hundreds of photographs from numerous African countries depicting women in various outfits, poses, and studio settings. The photographs date from 1870 through the 1970s. Each image is accompanied by Ms. McKinley's expert and deeply researched commentary, offering readers insights into the photographers behind the camera and the type of dress the subjects are wearing. More importantly, she provides the historical and cultural context of each image, debunking stereotypes, myths, and racist tropes often assigned to Black women's appearances. Usually, in a book of photographs, either the words or the photos are what readers find compelling, not both. Ms. McKinley has successfully found that sometimes elusive balance: both the images and the text tell the subjects' complex stories. And the context and words are as unforgettable as the photographs. The African Lookbook is a beautiful, powerful book. The ARC is in black and white; I eagerly await the chance to see the book in its final form with full-color imagery.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Barb

    Fascinating look at photography and fabric in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. From the Preface For African Women across the continent, many of the most powerful but less remarked upon modern legacies were born of the sewing machine and the camera...steadfast instruments that offered a powerful means to author one's own life. Reading this book was a virtual museum day during this pandemic. I appreciate the author's collection and the work she has done to notate the history behind the ph Fascinating look at photography and fabric in Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries. From the Preface For African Women across the continent, many of the most powerful but less remarked upon modern legacies were born of the sewing machine and the camera...steadfast instruments that offered a powerful means to author one's own life. Reading this book was a virtual museum day during this pandemic. I appreciate the author's collection and the work she has done to notate the history behind the photographs.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Kel

    Evocative and stirring. One does not often considered pictures when thinking of the soul. The pictures within this book provide glimpses into the souls of those captured within. There are stories accompanying each photo can vary in length and depth. The true prize are the photos. There are some slanderous words used by the photographers and some intimate shots of women that can be unsettling. The book is a jewel.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Kristine

    The African Lookbook by Catherine E. McKinley is a free NetGalley ebook that I read in mid-November. 150 years of African women’s fashion, design, and textile arts - McKinley goes into delineation of social class, disposable funds, and interprets photographs. There is so much beauty in the subject matter and presentation, but yet also fetishization and speculation of bare flesh.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Ellen

    This might have been more interesting if I was more into art and photography. I guess I'm just not passionate enough to interpret artworks, so while I enjoyed learning the history and background of these photographs, I tuned out a bit when the interpretations got deeper. If art and African art in particular are your passion, this would be a winner for you! This might have been more interesting if I was more into art and photography. I guess I'm just not passionate enough to interpret artworks, so while I enjoyed learning the history and background of these photographs, I tuned out a bit when the interpretations got deeper. If art and African art in particular are your passion, this would be a winner for you!

  13. 5 out of 5

    Sarah

    The women in these photos are beautiful and haunting. There is every facial expression imaginable represented. The essays and explanations do a lot to bring them to life in a new way. I went through once admiring the photos and then again while reading the captions and essays. Highly recommend for anyone interested in photography, Black history, African history, women’s history, fashion, and anyone with eyes. Thanks to the publisher for the ARC.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Ruth “Ma Grape”

  15. 5 out of 5

    OTIS

  16. 4 out of 5

    Trent R

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kay

  18. 4 out of 5

    Patric

  19. 4 out of 5

    Karla Strand

  20. 4 out of 5

    Renee // Feminist Book Club Box and Podcast

  21. 4 out of 5

    Shelley

  22. 5 out of 5

    Bloomsbury Publishing

  23. 5 out of 5

    Shirley

  24. 5 out of 5

    Colleen

  25. 5 out of 5

    LR

  26. 4 out of 5

    Amy

  27. 5 out of 5

    Carmen

  28. 4 out of 5

    Molly

  29. 4 out of 5

    Never Without a Book

  30. 4 out of 5

    Tanya Pickles

  31. 4 out of 5

    Ariel [She Wants the Diction]

  32. 5 out of 5

    Christina

  33. 4 out of 5

    Leo

  34. 5 out of 5

    Danielle

  35. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  36. 5 out of 5

    Julia

  37. 5 out of 5

    Sidra Imam

  38. 4 out of 5

    Rachel Ladeby

  39. 4 out of 5

    Rachel

  40. 5 out of 5

    Debbie

  41. 5 out of 5

    Katherine C. Hirstein

  42. 4 out of 5

    Lynse

  43. 4 out of 5

    Nadia

  44. 5 out of 5

    Iel Amt

  45. 4 out of 5

    CM

  46. 4 out of 5

    Annelisa

  47. 4 out of 5

    Hope

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