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Interviews / September 20, 2019

“The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture”

Sandrine Colard, artistic director of the upcoming Lubumbashi Biennale and guest curator of a new exhibition of African photography at the Ryerson Image Centre, discusses the shifting dynamics between female sitters and their photographers

Yaniya Lee: Can you describe the exhibition you curated at the Ryerson Image Centre?

Sandrine Colard: The exhibition is called “The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture.” When I had this idea of creating a show about African women in African photography, I realized that all I had seen were photographs by people [other than African women], which did not leave much room for how African women see themselves, how they want to be represented—not really recognizing them, even that power, especially historically. And so suddenly this title popped into my head. And every single person I told this title to thought I was talking about physical looks; nobody assumed I was talking about how women look at themselves, at the world, and how they want to be represented. It was very telling, for me. It says a lot about the place we have given African women in history, period, but also about the place we have given them in the history of photography.

I am also half Congolese: my mum is Congolese. I am surrounded by very strong African women in my family, and I did not recognize them in the ways African women had been historically portrayed, as these sort of perpetual victims. Of course, there’s no [question of] erasing how African women have been abused in the history of photography, but I wanted to tell another story, about how even in these difficult circumstances they retained a certain power about them.

“The research about African photography is still a very young discipline, it’s barely 30 years old. It’s still something we are unravelling.”

YL: Can you talk about the importance of the Walther Collection, and what it was like going through it to find these images?

SC: It was like being in a candy store! It’s one of the most important private collections of African photography. I also knew that this show could work: I knew that the amount of images and the quality of the images in the collection would make it possible.

For the historical [part of the exhibition]—the late-19th and early-20th-century photographs—it was important for to me to select images in which you could see a sort of agency on the part of the sitter, instead of them as just a victim, or as coerced, or if they were [being coerced], images that could show their resistance.

In the 20th and 21st-century photographs, there is the notion of collaboration—something that’s very sensitive in Seydou Keïta’s and Malick Sidibé’s images. And obviously documentary practices of South Africa in the last year of apartheid show images in which women are self-possessed—where they are showing themselves to the camera in a conscious way. And then, of course, in the contemporary period, we have so many amazing African women photographers that it was easy to select.

A. C. Gomes & Sons, <em>Natives [sic] Hair Dressing, Zanzibar, Tanzania</em>, late 19th century. Collodion printed-out print. Courtesy of The Walther Collection and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg. A. C. Gomes & Sons, Natives [sic] Hair Dressing, Zanzibar, Tanzania, late 19th century. Collodion printed-out print. Courtesy of The Walther Collection and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg.
J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere J.D. ‘Okhai Ojeikere, Untitled (Suku Banana Onididi), from the series Hairstyles, 1974 (printed 2009). Gelatin silver print. Courtesy of The Walther Collection and Galerie Magnin-A, Paris. © The artist.

YL: The exhibition is divided into sections, there are historical photographs and contemporary photographs. Can you talk about the relationship between them?

SC: If we look at the series by Lebohang Kganye, a very successful South African photographer, what I thought was really interesting is that it has some continuity with the history of African photography. In these images, we see Kganye wearing the clothes of her deceased mother, [an image which is then digitally] juxtaposed on the original picture of her mother.

When we look at the studio photographs by Seydou Keïta and Malick Sidibé, there are what I call the twinning images: these women coming dressed the same as the photographer to commemorate this sort of bond. You know the expression “cut from the same cloth?” It’s something that’s been traditionally done: creating and wearing a similar dress to express some kind of solidarity, or bonds of friendship or family. And what I thought was really interesting is that Kganye is following this tradition in a new way.

You have a strong connection in African photography between textile and photography. In the 19th-century room, in one of the windows, is a book with photographs by an African photographer, and you can see how [the subjects] sit with legs wide apart is so that the textile is visible. Very often the pattern on textile had meaning; it conveyed social status, among other things. What’s fascinating with photography is that for a very long time people thought it was a machine, that it was mechanic, and that it was always being used in the same mechanical way. This example of textiles in the image shows how photography has been culturally appropriated in different ways.

YL: Attention to African photography is changing. The history of African photography is largely unknown in the West. How do you think it is changing, and why? Maybe a biennale is one way, or an archive.

SC: One thing that was recently “discovered”—and I’m very carefully using this word “discover,” because in the West we consider that we’ve discovered something even when it has been there for a long time, so we could say instead that it has been popularized recently—is the life of midcentury studio-portrait photographer Felicia Abban. She’s still alive; she had her own studio in Ghana in the 1950s. And so that’s something completely new. We always assumed that there were only male practitioners in these studios, and now that’s completely shifting. We are telling the history of photography in the continent because we know now that there were female photographers practicing and having their own studios.

It’s true that the concentration of images in the exhibition are from South Africa, West Africa (Mali, Nigeria) and then East Africa, especially in the historical room. The research about African photography is still a very young discipline, it’s barely 30 years old. It’s still something we are unravelling. There is tons [more] that needs to be done. I’ve done my own research about [photographic histories] in Central Africa, and in the Congo; I was the first researcher to do that.

So there are tons of things we don’t know yet, which is exciting, but at the same time daunting. I think in the coming years we will understand more and more about how photography has been used in particular cultural ways in Africa.

“The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture” will be on view at the Ryerson Image Centre from September 11 to December 8, 2019.

Yaniya Lee

Yaniya Lee is a writer interested in collective practice and the ethics of aesthetics. She is a PhD student in Gender Studies at Queen's University.