Curator Catherine McKinley discusses her new African photography exhibition that puts female subjects in the limelight

Aunty! African Women In The Frame, 1890 To The Present is my new exhibition opening at the Brooklyn’s United Photo Industries Gallery. It featuring rare, original images from The McKinley Collection, a personal trove I began developing informally in the 1990s. As a writer and fashion historian with a Fulbright Fellowship, I set out on a journey along textile trade routes linking 11 West African nations, and dug into stranger's family albums and studio archives to document how people wore what they wore and what it revealed about trade and love and politics in the era they lived in.

At the same time, Seydou Keïta - and soon after, Malick Sidibé - were introduced to Western art worlds. I met Keïta at his NYC opening at Gagosian Gallery flanked by the powerful white men who commandeered them. I left the next night for Mali with a black woman artist who was also represented by Gagosian. Collecting photographic records in Bamako and Segou and Mali in the style of Keïta raised the question of who owns and preserves African photo legacies, and where black women - arguably the disproportionate subjects of colonial and post-colonial image projects - enter the archive as custodians, historians, preservationists, curators, and as wielders of institutional power.

Aunty! is in some way an answer to this. It is a unique collaboration between myself as collector and photographer and curator Laylah Amatullah Barrayn – two black women presenting works where the subjects of the collection are women. The show features nearly 150 works ranging from portraiture to cartes de visite, taken as early as 1890 and as recently as 2013. Photographers include colonial studios owned by both European and African male photographers - named and unnamed - spanning the post-colonial era with works by such celebrated artists as James Barnor (Ghana/UK), until present day artists like Zina Saro-Wiwa (Nigeria/UK/US), Patricia Coffie (Ghana/USA) and Fatoumata Diabate (Mali). The collection covers the continent, with images from 49 of the 54 African nations.

This exhibition also engages with the nuances of the “Aunty” as both a colonial construction and honorific of African womanhood. We take up the idea and figure of the Aunty and the duality of this naming. At once an expression of love and affection, Aunty is a term of respect across most black world cultures, a recognition of a feminine power rooted in indigeneity. As powerfully, it connotes the violence of the original colonial construction of the word: the corporeal, dark, servile figure, buffoonish in her role of nurse. It is also a name burdened by African and diaspora grapplings with gender and often troubling constructions of motherhood and sexuality.

We look at Aunties through the troubling lens of colonialism, including a few earlier photographic images of the late 1890s, and also the colonial and postcolonial lens of African male photographers, to vernacular images of post-independence partygoers and studio sittings, and contemporary renderings. For myself and Barrayn, Aunty! is an attempt to look head on at the beauty of the images and also their more often discomfiting legacies, and the moments where the subjects look back at the viewer reassuringly, with a sense of control of her image, and pleasure in herself.

Aunty! African Women In The Frame, 1890 To The Present is on view from 15 November 2018 to 31 January 2019 at the United Photo Industries Gallery, Dumbo, Brooklyn

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Published on 10/11/2018