OkayAfrica's 100 Women
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An Examination of Aunty: Documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn on the Historical Weight of the Word

Photographer Laylah Amatullah Barrayn's latest exhibition forces us to examine our use of the word "aunty" while grappling with agency, identity and the perception of African women.

Ask any Black person of the African Diaspora who their favorite celebrity aunty is and you'll likely receive 10 different responses.

There's Maxine Waters, whose tenure and temerity in Congress have endeared her to the Black community at large. In entertainment, you may get Jenifer Lewis, who has effortlessly played so many maternal figures on the big screen that she proudly titled her memoir The Mother of Black Hollywood. The music industry has given us women ranging from Mary J. Blige to Anita Baker—different eras of songstresses, but aunties all the same. And then there's Bose Ogulu, mother of Burna Boy, whose no-nonsense persona reminds fans so much of their own aunties that she has been affectionately ordained "Mama Burna."

The thread that binds all these women to this label is the sense of kinship, adoration, and respect endowed upon them by the Black Diaspora; the title is one that is earned, and to be carried proudly. "Aunty" is a name that surpasses its biological definition. It is a sentiment that photographer and documentarian Laylah Amatullah Barrayn and I discuss as we ponder our own transitions to such a position in our families—hers a pan-African unit several generations out of the continent—at the OkayAfrica 100 Women photoshoot. Barrayn is still buzzing from her go in front of the lens; it is not lost on the creative that the table—or the cameras—have quite literally turned. She is now the one being documented.


"Thanks for inviting me," Barrayn says, switching out the wide brim hat she's wearing to another one in her bag. Lately, she tells us behind-the-scenes, hats are her thing.

Barrayn's greatest works focus on documentation, and reclaiming and preserving the so very uniquely African use of "aunty" came naturally. This composition of lived experience anchored by historical context brought Barrayn to collaborating with author and art collector Catherine McKinley on Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to the Present, a Brooklyn exhibit that unfurled the legacy of African womanhood and agency through the lens and timeline of photography on the continent. The term "aunty" as a titular framework for the collection is equal parts reverence, exploration, and reclamation of the word, drawing through-lines on how the perception of African women has shifted in tandem with the storytellers in charge.

In many African cultures, aunty is a label bestowed unto a woman as a term of respect or status rather than an indicator of any familial relationship; an inversion of its application in the colonial era, where white landowners used the term to mammify or subjugate African women as the laborers and caretakers of their European overlords. In this way, the manner in which we reclaim it present day is not dissimilar to the painful history of the word "nigga" in the United States.

"We can't do a show called Aunty and not talk about that," Barrayn says. "Aunty was a derogative, colonial term… It was not positive so we wanted to look at both of sides of what aunty means."

In other words, as Barrayn says, "I like to show the whole conversation."

The agency represented in Aunty's photographs as new generations took hold of their images (and the words used to describe them) extends to curation as well, as Barrayn points out that a large portion of African works are mostly presented by white, male, European collectors: "It's important for me to kind of have that pushback by two women of African descent to present the works in our own context and contextualize it in a way that wouldn't erase some of the history and the culture of how and when and why these pictures were taken."

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present , "Three Women" — Image by Oumar Ly, Podor, Senegal, Circa 1980

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With that contextualization comes a reckoning of images she collected featuring African women before the establishment of African studios: colonial photography that reinforced a mammification (or inherent servitude) of the women not just on the continent, but also abroad. "They were used as postcards, they were used as part of the colonial project and regime to document what was happening on the continent as it related to their pursuits on the land," Barrayn says, highlighting that African women were an object of fascination. (Think Sarah Baartman, the Khoi woman taken from South Africa and paraded around Europe's freak shows.)

"What I didn't show in the exhibition was the back of the postcard. There were a lot of negative messages—'look where I am, look at this ugly woman on this postcard, I'm in the jungle, I'm glad this isn't you,'—and different things like that," Barrayn says.

This derogatory collection is juxtaposed by photos of African studios in the 50s and 60s by legendary artists such as Seydou Keita and Malick Sidibe—portraits and celebrations of young women engaging in everyday life—ultimately transitioning into the work of contemporary African photographers such as Fatoumata Diabate, using the camera as a medium to push the vanguard of representations of the African woman in present-day. As the African studios began to flourish, the photos veered away from third-person gawking to fuller depictions of daily life—anything from traditional ceremonies to young adults on their way to the club, with full consent of the parties involved.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, "Woman in Afro" — Image by Adama Sylla, Saint-Louis, Senegal, Circa 1970

"Now, a lot of African photographers are shying away from the photojournalism and documentary work and really using a lot of creativity and their imagination and creating new ideas about their lives and the world," Barrayn mentions excitedly. "And a lot of the work now is fictionalized and storied which is really interesting and fun. It's an experience to engage with because you get to see what people on the continent are thinking about themselves and what could be."

Naming this generational collection of photos came easy. Aunty, Laylah says, is what intrinsically developed as she and McKinley went through the process of selecting which of the photos amassed would make the final cut for the exhibit: "We were like, 'Okay let's put this aunty to the side.' We were calling these women aunties. We had seen the photographs before, they felt very close to us, even though they were photographs, they were African women from various African countries....it was just so intuitive."

The century-long transition Barrayn's project showcased rendered the dynamic of the subject of the photos from purely exploitative to more collaborative, allowing for the women to choose how they want their stories to be captured for themselves, as opposed to having a narrative foisted upon them. As was deserving of proper aunties, they were now being granted with the respect, deference, and agency they had long been denied.

Images from Aunty! African Women in the Frame, 1870 to Present, "Fela Queens" — Image by Bernard Matussiere, European Tour 1983, The McKinley Collection

In a manner, these photos had been seen before by many of us first generation children; a fair number of these images were reminiscent of the photo albums tucked away in the houses of our parents and grandparents. Our albums possess snapshots akin to the artifacts being gathered by the various white collectors across the globe—priceless commodities that preserved the legacies of the women who came before us. For Barrayn, they were a critical opportunity in allowing us to become our own archivists, as opposed to letting our stories continue to fall in the hands and context of said collectors, such as Andre Magnin's collection of Sidibe's work.

"Family archives are very important to me in understanding who you are as a person, as an individual, your familial and cultural identity, and also really documenting the time too," she says. "Now, some of the photography that's from the 40s and 50s are worth a lot of money—so if you don't value it somebody else will."

"Women Paying Respect to Mame Diarra Bousso, Prokhane" — Image by Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, Senegal, 2014

As she relays this to me with conviction, I think about my upcoming trip this summer—back to my family's homeland of Comoros, where I'll spend time with my many aunts, biological and otherwise, in a woman-dominant clan. For most of my life, I have called all of them Tata—the French word for aunty—but in recent years, as the next generation has started to come of age, I have been elevated to Tata status of my very own. Inheriting that mantle comes with a duty to preserve the family legacy before those memories are lost—or, perhaps even worse, defined by someone else.

For Barrayn, she hopes that her work encourages people to create platforms that continue to show the whole conversation, similar to Aunty and her project MFON: Women Photographers of the African Diaspora—a publication that showcases the works of 100 women of African descent, and continues the tradition of using photography as a launching point for new perspectives and under-discussed narratives .

Chronicling our heritage through photographs is a privilege, and one that shouldn't be taken for granted as our forebearers lacked the ability to dictate narratives on their own terms. And exploring the language used against us, and how our current colloquialism has turned it into something we honor, is an important context to our overall history.

Aunty is more than a photographic exhibit to change the perceptions of how African women were seen and how they see themselves.

"A reclamation of the word, yes," Barrayn says. "And an examination of the word."

Shamira Ibrahim is a Brooklyn-based writer by way of Harlem, Canada, and East Africa who comments on culture, identity, and politics.

Culture
Photo (c) John Liebenberg

'Stolen Moments' Uncovers the Namibian Music That Apartheid Tried to Erase

The photo exhibition, showing at the Brunei Gallery in London, highlights artists from Namibia's underground scene between 1950-1980, a time of immense musical suppression prior to its independence.

Before its independence in 1990, a whole generation of Namibians were made to believe that their county had no real musical legacy. Popular productions by Namibian artists from previous eras were systematically concealed from the masses for nearly 30 years, under the apartheid regime—which extended to the country from South Africa following German colonization—depriving many Namibians of the opportunity to connect with their own musical heritage.

"Stolen Moments: Namibian Music Untold," a new exhibit currently showing at London's Brunei Museum at SOAS University of London, seeks to revive the musical Namibian musical traditions that the apartheid regime attempted to erase.

"Imagine you had never known about the musical riches of your country," said the exhibit's curator Aino Moongo in a statement of purpose on SOAS' site. "Your ears had been used to nothing but the dull sounds of country's former occupants and the blaring church and propaganda songs that were sold to you as your country's musical legacy. Until all at once, a magnitude of unknown sounds, melodies and songs appear. This sound, that roots your culture to the musical influences of jazz, blues and pop from around the world, is unique, yet familiar. It revives memories of bygone days, recites the history of your homeland and enables you for the first time to experience the emotions, joys and pains of your ancestors."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs

The 'Stolen Moments" project began in 2010 in an effort to champion Namibia's unsung musical innovators. For the collection, Moongo and Assistant Curator, Siegrun Salmanian—along with a group of international scholars, artists, photographers and filmmakers—curated a large-scale photo exhibit that also features a 120-minute video projection, focusing on the dance styles of the era, along with listening stations, a sound installation that features "100-hours of interviews with musicians and contemporary witnesses," and displays of record covers and memorabilia from the period between 1950-1980.

The musicians highlighted, produced work that spanned a number of genres—a marker of the country's vast and eclectic underground scene. Artists like the saxophonist Leyden Naftali who led a band inspired by the sounds of ragtime, and the psychedelic rock and funk of the Ugly Creatures are explored through the exhibition, which also centers bands and artists such as The Dead Wood, The Rocking Kwela Boys, Children of Pluto and more.

"There are many reasons why you've never heard this music before," Moongo continues. "It was censored, suppressed, prohibited and made almost impossible to listen to. Its creators are either long gone or have given up on music making, by reasons of adversity, death and despair. And yet this beautiful music exists with a liveliness, as if it had never stopped playing. It is still in the minds of the few who can remember, with the ones who played it, and on those rare recordings that have survived in archives and record collections scattered around the globe. Allow me to share these stolen moments with you."

Photo (c) Dieter Hinrichs


Photo (c) John Liebenberg

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"Stolen Moments" is now showing at the Brunei Gallery in London and runs through Sept 21.

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Foul Language and Depictions of Rape Spur a Book Recall Campaign in Kenya

Kenya's Top Book seller pulls a South African book for youth due to foul language.

A main book supplier in Kenya, Text Book Centre, has announced that they would not stock a book due to its "vulgar and foul language." The book, Blood Ties, was written by South African author Zimkhitha Mlanzeli. The banning comes just after a video went viral in Kenya of a school child having a verbal outburst peppered with strong language. As reported by BBC, the removal was sparked by parents showing outrage after excerpts from the book were shared on twitter. These excerpts contained use of the f-word as well as a description of a rape scene.

As per their statement, the Text Book Centre claims they believe in "upholding high moral standards and raising generations of responsible citizens who are not only educated but ethical." The Kenyan publisher, StoryMoja, has defended the book in a statement of their own. They argue that the book is part of a new series showcasing books that deal with "contemporary societal issues" and that this particular book is a fictional story that grapples with the negative repercussions of peer pressure. "In actual fact, the book guides readers on the steps to take should they find themselves in a similar situation and underscores the sensitivity with which victims of sexual abuse should be treated." The statement also highlights the fact that the publishers had listed Blood Ties for readers in high school or above.


The discrepancy is that some schools have recommended the book as a reader – meaning for younger children aged 12 or 13 – though it has not been approved by the Kenyan Institute of Curricular Development (KICD), the entity in charge of managing texts used in schools. In a tweet, the KICD claimed that the book was not approved and that some teachers may be recommending texts without ensuring they were endorsed by the KICD. The dispute is sparking debate as to what should be taught in Kenyan schools.

As of late this morning, StoryMoja is in the process of recalling all copies of the book from stores and schools across Kenya. In a tweet they claim that it is because they have determined the language used in the book is the issue and not the subject matter.

Censorship is always a contested topic, just last month we reported on Nigerian authorities censoring a music video for "threatening security." Also, Kenya's censorship tactics have been in the global eye since a refusal to screen the film Rafiki for its homosexual heroines despite being lauded at international film festivals.

Here are some reactions from Kenyans on Twitter:





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mage courtesy of TIFF

Senegalese Filmmaker Mati Diop Tells a Haunted Story of Migration

We caught up with the celebrated director at the Toronto International Film Festival to talk about her new film, Atlantics

It's been a good year for French-Senegalese director Mati Diop and her film Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story.

The movie got its North American premier at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this month after wowing critics and audiences at Cannes, where it won the prestigious Grand Prix. Diop was the first Black woman to successfully submit a film in the Cannes competition, and naturally the first to win any award at the iconic festival.

In Toronto, the Paris-born director was also honored with the inaugural Mary Pickford Award for Outstanding Female Talent, presented at the TIFF Tribute Gala on September 9. The award is named after Mary Pickford, a Toronto native who went on to conquer Hollywood in the early days of the industry as an actor and producer. Co-founder of United Artists, she was the highest paid woman in Hollywood in her day.

Mati Diop, actor and director, was born in Paris into a prominent Senegalese family, the daughter of noted musician Wasis Diop, and niece of well known filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. As a director, she has several short films under her belt, including Atlantiques in 2009. Her short films Big in Vietnam and A Thousand Suns screened at TIFF in 2012 and 2013 respectively. Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story is Diop's first feature, which she directed as well as co-writing the screenplay with Olivier Demangel.

It's in the story of the first Atlantiques – the short – that the new film came to be. "The two films are both connected and not connected," Diop tells OkayAfrica. The short Atlantiques was self produced, and shot on video on a shoestring budget, she explains. Diop was moved by the constant stream of reports, between 2000 and 2010, of young Senegalese taking to small wooden boats and braving the ocean waters in a bid to reach Spain and better opportunities. As she notes, the media tended to treat the phenomenon as largely an abstract issue, one that had to do with economic forces. Diop wanted to tell the story of the real people in that situation.

"I felt that my cinema should be put at the service of their voices," she says. "I wanted to understand." It's part of what motivated Diop to get into film in the first place. While the short was shot documentary-style, she worked the story as fiction. The actor featured in the short had actually made an Atlantic crossing, but was subsequently turned back by Spanish authorities. The way he spoke about the experience connected with Diop; in particular, his determination to try the perilous journey once more. "I am here, but not here," he told her. "Serigne felt it was here [in Senegal] he would lose his life," Diop says. She wanted to understand what drove so many young men to risk their lives. "He felt that his life was vulnerable in Senegal." The actor's words took on even more resonance when he died, while still in Senegal, before he could try again. Diop says he had gone to a hospital after falling ill, but the staff were on strike. After his death, it left her with mixed feelings. "I wondered if I had the right to continue."

TIFF Tribute Gala Mati Diop | TIFF 2019 www.youtube.com

Diop was left with the poignant memory, and a haunting impression. "When you leave, it means you are already dead," she says. After filming the short, she attended Serigne's funeral, and filmed his mother and sister—the women left behind who would become the focus of the feature film treatment. Diop says that the character of Ada, the protagonist of the new movie, is based in large part on the sister, who, in the short film, does not speak any lines.

In Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story, Ada is 17 years old, in love with Souleiman, but her parents have already arranged a very practical marriage with another—and much wealthier—man. On the eve of her wedding, odd things begin to happen, and Ada learn that Souleiman and his friends have left Dakar in a boat, hoping to reach Spain. Ada and her BFFs anxiously await any word from them, as the mysterious happenings keep piling up.

"The beauty of women comes through marriage," a cleric tells one mother. Ada's story embodies the life of a young West African woman—torn between traditional forces in both her family and society, and the friends who wear Western dress and don't bother with the old ways. The wealthy family she has married into owns a large construction company, the one that didn't pay its workers for months, leading the young workers to try their luck in Spain. She loves Souleiman, but she also needs to find her own path.

Mama Sané plays Ada, the solid heart of the film, as a tangle of emotions and repressed desires. She veers from defiant when dealing with the police detective sent to investigate the strange occurrences, to a wordless expression of longing with the kind of intensity only a teenager can muster.

Diop's directorial vision turns Dakar into a place of both surreal magic and harsh reality. The film immerses the audience in the city's sounds, from the goats bleating outside a window while Ada and her friends talk, to voices in the next room, with the eternal heaving of waves against the shore as a recurring refrain. The original music by Fatima Al Qadiri adds to the effect.

Cinematographer Claire Mathon has shot the film with a poetic eye. There are many images of the shifting surface of the sea, with the open sky and sun above it, each different from the last. The streets of Dakar at night take on an otherworldly edge, framed in palm trees against the artificial lights. The building the young men have been working on is futuristic in design, all glass and steel, and the company owner's neutral modern mansion contrasts with the broken rubble on the streets, from slick sports cars to horse drawn carts. It adds to the sense of the surreal.

Atlantics: A Ghost Love Story was acquired by Netflix after Cannes, and is intended for worldwide release by the streaming service, (with the exception of China, Russia, Benelux, Switzerland, and France.) As part of its new policy, Netflix, which became an official member of the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America,) earlier this year, will be giving the flick a "theater-first" release, opening in selected theaters on November 15, with streaming available from November 29 in North America.

The film also stars Amadou Mbow, Ibrahima Traoré, Nicole Sougou, Amina Kane, Mariama Gassama, Coumba Dieng, Ibrahima Mbaye, and Diankou Sembene. Dialog in the France-Senegal-Belgium co-production is in Wolof with subtitles.

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(Photo by Francois LOCHON/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images )

Exiled Tunisian President Ben Ali Has Died

The former president had been living in Saudi exile since 2011.

Tunisia's former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, 83, has been declared dead while in exile in Saudi Arabia. Ben Ali became interim Prime Minister in 1987. He ran unopposed and was elected Prime Minister in 1998 and served for 23 years – from 1988 to 2011. He was known for using autocratic techniques, eradicating presidential term limits and altering age caps in order to stay in power. In the beginning, Ben Ali was considered a "people's head of state" and garnered the nickname "Benavie" which loosely translates to "Ben Ali for life." By the 2000s, however, he had become deeply unpopular and prompted protests and unrest against his oppressive rule.

His reign ended when he fled Tunisia on January 14, 2011 amid protests that ultimately led to a string of revolutions dubbed the Arab Spring. He had been living in exile in Saudi Arabia ever since. As France 24 reports, in 2018 Ben Ali was sentenced in absentia by Tunisian courts to "more than 200 years in prison on charges including murder, corruption and torture."

Though there is no cause of death just yet, Ben Ali had been in intensive hospital care for lung cancer for three months. According to Al Jazeera, lawyer Mounir Ben Salha announced Ben Ali's death to news agencies via phone and the claim was confirmed by Tunisia's foreign minister.

There is footage of a Tunisian lawyer taking to the street at dawn celebrating the news of Ben Ali's death.


This past Sunday, Tunisia held free elections advancing Kas Saied and Nabil Karoui (who is currently jailed) as presidential candidates with neither receiving a majority vote. A run-off election between the two will be held September 29.

Tunisians and others are sharing their reactions to the news across social media. Here are some reactions:





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