A USA Today "Must-Read for Black History Month"
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.
"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 . . . McKinley delicately reminds us that African traditions, styles, creations and the people themselves — with their many layers and differences — don’t need to come from fictional kingdoms like Zamunda or Wakanda to deserve attention. The real, everyday beauty of Africa is worth canonizing beyond the continent." - New York Times Book Review
"The curator draws on her collection of historical and contemporary photographs of African girls and women for a striking visual history spanning decades." - USA Today, "5 Books not to Miss"
"Black is beautiful--no matter what era or geographical region. This historical photography collection depicts that truth stunningly, telling the visual and textual story of African women living on the motherland between 1870 and 1970. Curator Catherine E. McKinley sheds light on their style, relationship dynamics, and the ways they’ve defeated colonial oppression to flourish on their own, presenting a hardcover that portrays Black women with dignity." - LEVEL
"The African Lookbook captures the dignity, grandeur, austerity and liveliness of African women across the century through images curated from celebrated African masters, studios and anonymous artists." - The Root
"[A] richly detailed and immersive visual history . . . Packed with arresting images and incisive analysis, this well-conceived survey tells a powerful story of African liberation." - Publishers Weekly
"What McKinley offers in this compelling, quixotic book is something closer to a testament—a bold declaration of the enduring strength, beauty and power of African women, many of whom gaze at the camera with evident self-possession. The African Lookbook is a pleasure to absorb, whether you already know about the history of photography on the African continent or are new to the conversation." - BookPage
"From young girls in Mali wearing ‘hot’ outfits beneath attire deemed respectable by Muslim culture to women defying Western Christianity by wearing traditional African attire to church, McKinley focuses on the ways in which fashion is a form of protest and resistance, preserving history in ‘more resilient and revealing’ ways than any other. The African Lookbook is an exquisite collection of African photographs and stories bearing witness to the power and grace of African women." - Booklist
"[A] bold act of reclaiming. Here, in photographs and lyrical prose, McKinley defies Western stereotypes about African women." - The Millions “A Year in Reading: Nadia Owusu”
"A really special book." - BookRiot's "For Real" Podcast
"How lucky we are that Catherine McKinley has collected this exquisite series of photographs from all corners of the African continent . . . proof of the range of beauty and elegance the world was otherwise telling us we could not possess." - Edwidge Danticat, from the Introduction
"As I slowly moved through the stunningly beautiful pages of The African Lookbook, I found myself being transported by the glorious photographs Catherine McKinley has collected. . . . We took and continue to take the skin, the pain, the fabric, the tools we have. And with all of this--as Catherine McKinley has done here--we make something as beautiful as our own selves." - Jacqueline Woodson, from the Foreword