Look closer at this 19th-century photo of a Congolese woman

THE WAY SHE LOOKS: A HISTORY OF FEMALE GAZES IN AFRICAN PORTRAITURE at Ryerson Image Centre (33 Gould). To December 8. Free. ryersonimagecentre.ca.

Look Closer is a column in which a writer visits museum, gallery or public art exhibition and explores a specific artwork or object that jumped out at them. Read more here.

She looks pissed. The 1880s Congolese woman with scars on her chest and nostrils flaring is participating in a photographic transaction to be sold off for a mostly white European tourist market. And judging from her steadfast gaze, she knows it.  

That was my impression of Femme Abou-Kaya de Makraka (Equateur), a 19th-century portrait by Egyptian-Armenian photographer Gabriel Lekegian tucked away in a small gallery in the Ryerson Image Centre. Part of the exhibition The Way She Looks: A History Of Female Gazes In African Portraiture, the show challenges preconceived notions of the overwhelming colonial gaze in ethnographic archives, but also the unchecked narrative that men dominate African photography. The exhibition retrieves another history – one that centres the way African women have, literally and figuratively, looked at the world.

Here’s why you should look closer at this photo.

Where to find it in the gallery

The Way She Looks is an ambitious overview of the African female experience in photography. The RIC’s Main Gallery begins with 1950s black-and-white studio portraits by Malian masters Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta before shifting to works by contemporary female artists including Lebohang Kganye, Jodi Bieber and Zanele Muholi.

The smaller University Gallery contains historical images and albums from the Walther Collection – arguably the first photographic encounters with African women – which includes 19th-century prints, postcards and carte de visite of Tanzanian “Natives” and South African “Zulu Mothers” (the terms are a marker of historical accuracy to preserve now-offensive titles and descriptions). Even though these gelatin silver prints are behind glass, you can imagine how these images passed through the hands of European missionaries, travellers, and explorers, circulating a staged and even artificial colonial gaze that was the racist by-product of Victorian “scientific” anthropology.

It’s a painful past, and one that can leave the casual viewer angered.

“In all these images, the place of women as sitters was barely discussed, or when it was, it was as passive models or victims of a male gaze over their bodies,” explains guest curator Sandrine Colard, who is an assistant professor of African art history at Rutgers University. “Even though a massive number of photographic images from the colonial era have been extremely detrimental to African women, I wanted to showcase that, even in these adverse circumstances, women retained some agency about the way they were portrayed.”  

Why it stands out

At first glance, one might assume Femme Abou-Kaya de Makraka (Equateur) captures a sitter posing against her will. But look closer at this albumen print – specifically, the clenched jaw and steely gaze – and there is defiance. The sitter may not want to be photographed, but her rigid demeanor suggests self-possession.

“For a long time, photographs pertaining to the colonial era in Africa were apprehended through a pretty dichotomous lens of either spectacular victimhood or resistance,” explains Colard. “But the majority of images from that period belong to a grey area that is more difficult to decipher. They require long, quiet and attentive looking and contextualizing.”

Colard credits the pioneering work of Black feminist theorist Tina Campt for influencing her desire to find a counter-narrative in these photos that would demonstrate the agency and even refusal of African female sitters. Campt’s 2017 book Listening To Images encourages readers to look for “affective frequencies” in historically dismissed photographs of Black subjects – and not just in 19th century ethnographic portraits, but also the 1960s mug shots of Freedom Riders. By allowing immediacy, embodiment and sensuality to inform how we truly look at a photo, a viewer can engage more intimately, bypassing the original dehumanizing intentions to focus on micro facial gestures – tense muscles, even the slightest smirk – that subvert, as Colard says, “a photographic transaction that has not been agreed upon.”  

The bigger picture

Shortly after The Way She Looks opened, Colard sat down for an onstage conversation with Julie Crooks, assistant curator of photography at the Art Gallery of Ontario, who noted the RIC survey was likely the first Toronto institutional exhibition to focus on African photography. While prominent local collector Kenneth Montague has done much to increase the visibility of African artists through his non-profit Wedge Curatorial Projects, Toronto galleries have been slow to collect and exhibit African work. Collections are overwhelmingly white – not to mention the boards and senior management.

But change is coming, and it’s largely being driven by increasingly prominent Black curators. From the much-anticipated 2021 public debut of the AGO’s Montgomery Collection of Caribbean Photographs to the inaugural Black Curators Forum in October, Black curators are poised to become a major force in Toronto.

“It’s a very rich time to rise as a Black or mixed-heritage curator, because it coincides with a moment when art institutions realize they will become irrelevant and die if they do not become more inclusive,” says Colard, who was born in Brussels to a Congolese mother and Belgian father.

She sees her heritage as an asset in understanding W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of “double consciousness” – being “othered” in everyday embodied experiences – within galleries, photo archives and behind closed doors in institutional spaces.

Further, museums in Toronto and elsewhere are embracing a curatorial practice that demands re-evaluating historical art. Whether it’s the Museum of Modern Art in New York City or the AGO, permanent collections no longer run along one timeline. Art isn’t grouped by isms. Indeed, multiple perspectives are emerging, and art that was once passed over – whether Indigenous or African – is becoming more relevant, especially as a counter-point to mostly white permanent collections.

This shift suits Colard, a historian focused on modern and contemporary African arts and photography. While encouraged by the hiring of African-art curators and professors in New York City, Paris and even Toronto, she remains invested in her roots. Colard recently curated the sixth edition of the Lubumbashi Biennale in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and is committed to connecting African audiences to contemporary art from Africa and the diaspora.

“This is a de-centering of the status quo of the art world ecology, when NYC or Paris have long been the places where African art could be seen,” she says. “Often research is extracted from Africa but consumed and shared elsewhere. For me, it was important to return to my place of research, which also happens to be the city of my mother.”


Stay In The Know with Now Toronto

Be the first to know about new and exclusive content