Art

The Ways She Looks and Looks Back at Us: Tracing the Gaze in Portraits of African Women

In a sprawling new photography exhibition at the Ryerson Image Center, the joy of self-definition offers its own form of resistance.

Jodi Bieber, “Babalwa” (2008) from the series Real Beauty, inkjet print © The artist (courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg)

TORONTO — Moving between the two galleries that contain The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture is like traveling between different worlds.  The first feels makes you feel boxed in while the second, much larger and more spacious gallery offers a sense of freedom. In the first gallery, the section “Encountering the Lens: The Birth of a Gaze” presents ethnographic images of African women, photographed like commodities meant to be used and devoured. However, in the other gallery, through “The Modern Studio: The Visual Soliloquy” and “Self-Possessed: Contemporary Gazes and Female Photographers” we sense a move toward liberation, where African women — as both subjects and photographers — exert agency and display their unique senses of style.

S. J. Moodley, “[Two women wearing Western attire]” (1981, printed 2016), inkjet print (courtesy of The Walther Collection)
Mimi Cherono Ng’ok, “Chebet and Chimu in the Garden” (printed 2018) from the series The Other Country (2008–ongoing), inkjet print © The artist (courtesy of the artist and The Walther Collection)

For the first Toronto exhibition of photographs from the Walther Collection — at Ryerson Image Centre through December 8 — Exhibitions Curator Gaëlle Morel tapped art historian Sandrine Colard to guest curate the show. “I always felt there was more to say about the place of African women in photography than what I could read or…see,” explained Colard, an expert on contemporary African art at Rutgers University. Colard spent the last two years assembling the exhibit, bringing together over 100 photographs from the 1870s through the present. The show traces a journey that starts with the white colonial gaze and progresses through the 1950s studio portraits of West African photographers like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita, and more contemporary works from  Mimi Cherono Ng’ and Zanele Muholi.

While the beginning of the exhibit features images made mostly by white male photographers, the specific images Colard has chosen convey a subtle yet subversive undercurrent of resistance emanating from the sitters. With a look in their eyes or a turn of the head these women seem like they have chosen exactly how to display the masks that they know are required of them. Take for example a portrait of a young South African woman by James Gribble II: the photographer lights her face so half is in shadow while half remains bright, yet it’s the look in her eyes that holds your attention. Dressed in a Victorian era gown with her hair coiffed, she projects a regal, all-knowing aura. 

Left: A. C. Gomes & Sons, “Natives [sic] Hair Dressing, Zanzibar, Tanzania” (late nineteenth century), collodion printed-out print (courtesy of The Walther Collection and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg)
Right: James Gribble II, “Kaffir [sic] Woman, South Africa” (1880s), albumen print (courtesy of The Walther Collection and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg)
The Way She looks exists in conversation with at least two of its predecessors: In and Out of the Studio: Photographic Portraits from West Africa, which ran through January 2016 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the November 2018 show Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to the Present, held at United Photo Industries Gallery in Brooklyn. While the Met exhibit intentionally excluded white photographers, The Way She Looks purposefully includes them to highlight the stark differences between nineteenth-century images and ones that came later. The wall labels even provide historical context for the term “kaffir” — a racial slur that whites used to insult Black South Africans. By inserting [sic] alongside every mention of the antiquated slur, Colard is both acknowledging the imperialist gaze of the photographer toward the sitters and plainly insisting on the sitters’ humanity, speaking up for them centuries later. The Aunty! show similarly focused on representations of the beauty of African women, but focused more explicitly on how the viewer sees the subjects.

If the first third of the exhibit is about reductive ways of being seen, the rest of the exhibit expands the sitters’ gaze to extend in both directions. Images like S.J. Moodley’s “Two women wearing Western attire” from 1981, and Lolo Veleko’s “Girl in yellow” from 2003 are emblematic of this dynamic. Both are head-to-toe framings of their subjects that evoke a sense of performance. The individual styles of both subjects invite us to see them on their own terms as they consciously project confidence and self-definition.

Nontsikelelo “Lolo” Veleko, “Nonkululeko” (2003) from the series Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder, inkjet print © The artist (courtesy of the artist and Goodman Gallery, Johannesburg)

Similarly affirming, South African photographer Zanele Muholi — who describes herself as a “visual activist” — uses her work to make queer and gender non-conforming people visible in a country where they are often marginalized. Under a sky rendered in a psychedelic blue, a set of images feature their subject in a black party dress and heels, at turns posed in a field of dry grass with visible bits of trash, and then seated in the same field wearing traditional Zulu garb. Together, the images present a serene yet bold contemplation of identity against the backdrop of modernity and tradition.

Despite the wide variation in images across two hundred years of history and multiple countries, The Way She Looks proves successful in presenting a coherent statement: the joy of self-definition offers its own form of resistance whether the photographer empathizes with the subject or not. It’s about the way she looks, yes, but it’s also about the way she looks at us and ultimately herself.

Zanele Muholi, “Miss D’Vine II,” from the series Miss D’vine, 2007, chromogenic print © Zanele Muholi. (courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg)

The Way She Looks: a History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture (Photographs from the Walther Collection) continues at the Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould Street, Toronto, Ontario M5B 2K3) through December 8.  The exhibition is guest curated by Sandrine Colard, in collaboration with The Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm, Germany and New York, USA. 

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