For some 30 years, McKinley, a curator, author and educator, has been collecting images of women from across Africa that capture the vastness of the continent’s fashion. Her collection largely focuses on the countries of the Sahel, like Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and on countries with Atlantic coastlines, from Morocco to Angola.
McKinley expertly guides readers through a history lesson of the ways fashion in these countries is connected with colonialism, industrialization and numerous traditions and styles of dressing, reminding us throughout that “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.”
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.