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  1. Untitled, Undated, Unknown, Senegal

'The African Lookbook' is 100 Years' Worth of African Women's Global Influence

Catherine E. McKinley's 'The African Lookbook' documents 100 years of African women in front of and behind the camera as well as Africa's unmistakable, yet often trivialised, influence on fashion as we know it today.

African-American writer and curator Catherine E. McKinley's The African Lookbook is a remarkable repository for African women's rich history, their influence on global fashion and photography spanning 100 years.

Published in January of 2021, the book comprises photographs collected during McKinley's numerous travels across Northern and Western Africa over the years. The African Lookbook is an extensive archive currently documenting the role of mainly West African women in fashion and how both the thriving textile trade from a century ago as well as colonisation, resulted in the fashion landscape we've come to know today.

In what remains an incredibly white-washed fashion industry filled with cultural appropriation, very little credit given to Africans and Black women who have (and continue to) contribute to the industry, The African Lookbook upends that reality within its pages. While popular designers, the likes of Tory Burch, Marc Jacobs and more, have been at the receiving end of public backlash for appropriating Black culture, McKinley's book highlights just how far back many of the runway trends we see today were actually pioneered by African women whose contributions were simply erased over time. Take for instance Stella McCartney's controversial 2017 Spring collection which comprised vibrant ankara prints (from West Africa) but had very few Black women in the show overall.

In addition to fashion, The African Lookbook explores Africans behind the camera. It seeks to name image-makers, to give credit where credit has been so long overdue, and chronicle what McKinley thinks of as the African-Atlantic—the coastal countries that were trade centres reaching into the interiors.

And so we caught up with McKinley to talk about her growing collection of insightful photographs, how the concept originated and what the bigger picture (pun intended) is for the collection itself.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


You go by a number of labels and titles. But how would you describe yourself to our audience as a creative, as a creator?

I think of myself probably primarily as a writer but I'm moving more and more into art. I'm thinking more about how the archive can be used for public exhibition, et cetera. Let's say writer and curator is probably the best thing. But you know, like most of us it's so fluid and a lot of different things going on at once.

How did the lookbook, as a concept and as an archive come about?

When I graduated from college, I made my first trip to West Africa: Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal. And when I was traveling, people would give me photographs. When you leave, somebody would present you with a photograph and we kind of did the penpal kind of thing. And the photos, they were really lovely photographs. I think one of the first ones I got was from somebody's houseboy and he gave me a photo of himself in his Sunday best. He was holding a chicken and he cooked it when I was there. So that had a lot of meaning. I knew also that it wasn't a cheap thing for him. It's something he dressed and paid money to have a really nice photo taken of himself. I collected many others, and they were the root of the collection, though at that time they were just keepsakes.

Then I brought them home and this was in 1991. I was always interested in photography, but by 1997, we started to see Seydou Keita and a few others. They made their way to the US and a huge exhibition of African photography. I met Seydou Keita too when he was here. And it was just mind blowing to me to see his work.

I just got into all this stuff around the politics of what was being done, but I was also really in love with the photos. Every year I was going to Africa, mostly West Africa and I was looking more and more at photos and also doing fashion research. As time went on and there was more and more attention to African photographers, I started really asking questions, like, "What is this all about? What's this dynamic about? How does somebody's personal photo become an art object? And what does that mean historically and politically?"

2. Untitled, Undated, UnknownImage supplied.

Would you say that your personal connection with the continent is a result of your travels?

It happened even before them. I would say, even as a really young child. I was adopted by a white couple. It was like, "Okay, what does this mean?" But then it's like, "Oh, you are Black but you're Afro-American." So I was like, "Afro-American is African." And then I thought, "Okay, so I'm African." I started reading a lot of Pan-Africanist stuff very early because I was looking for Black books and there was a university nearby.

I was introduced really early to Pan-Africanism. Then the irony is that my biological father, when I did find him, is African-American, but his grandparents were from the Cape Verde Islands and he then married a Ghanaian. So I have all these Ghanaian half-sisters. I always felt myself as very much a part of Africa.

Do you still identify as being African now that you're much older?

I won't use it because people don't understand what I'm saying, but yes, in myself and at this point in my life, I probably have spent more time living in Ghana and traveling to Ghana in particular. So it's a big part of me. When I got there, I was like a fish to water. Some people go and they have all these conflicts and whatever. For me, it was like, "Okay, this is my corner of the world."

There are quite a number of photographs in this lookbook. Are there any ones in particular that really stand out for you personally and why?

It's hard because in selecting, I was talking to somebody about this yesterday, I never buy or take a photo that I don't really have a connection to. Sometimes I'd say, "The image is okay." But yesterday, I found something that was taken by a Senegalese photographer and I think it's in Gabon. It was 1911 and the photo itself was landscape. It's not a really remarkable photo, but I was like, "This is a Senegalese photographer in Gabon in 1911. So who's going to question that?" So sometimes I have that sort of response to things but every photo, I have some attachment to.

In the book, the spread at the back about independence. There's a woman at the back named Korama and she gave me some of her own pictures. They were pre-independence, so the '70s. They're just really brilliant. She's a stunning woman. She's so beautiful and the photos are beautiful. I think those are probably my favourites.

In what ways would you say, if at all, that this particular project is perhaps radical or revolutionary seeing as there is currently nothing like it?

It's really interesting. Especially because when we talk about Keita hitting the West in 1996 until now, it's a little bit shocking that nobody's done something similar. But I think it's revolutionary in the sense that nobody's looking at women in any way. They're just kind of saying, "Okay, women are looking back at the camera and there's a power issue." That's important, it doesn't go all that far. But this really is capturing the earliest images through. And the book doesn't go through contemporary images, but the archive does. So I think that in and of itself, positioning women in that way is absolutely revolutionary.

Women were the disproportionate part of the archive, of the colonial archive in particular. And then the African photographers, they were mostly photographing women. So how can anybody have skipped over this? That's a funny thing. People talked about fashion, but for the most part, they haven't really looked at women at all. And my little project right now is to figure out who were the earliest African female photographers. There's almost no evidence of anybody up until the independence era. There's one woman from Nigeria in the 1920s. I have to check the date, but I think it's the 1920s. And I think she owned the studio—a big deal.

3. Aunty Koramaa III, 1956, Dan. Minotla, Accra, GhanaImage supplied.

Looking at the fashion industry right now, it's very much whitewashed. And very few instances exist of Africa having been given credit. In what ways do you think that this lookbook challenges that reality?

I was looking at a magazine yesterday and I think people would argue that a blouse is a European form but I don't think so. Yes, a blouse in the way we know it came from Europe through the missionaries, but the way it's been Africanized, I don't think that people realise that. But if you look on any fashion page at the moment those are African sleeves, a Black woman's S-curve in many dresses. At New York University, I was doing an arts degree but I I did a lot of costume courses. They taught half-an-hour's worth of non-Western fashion and this is one of the leading costume programs in the world. There's just such huge ignorance, even in the way that people talk about what is traditionally African.

There's always been this idea of African women have always liked what's the latest fashion. As much as they like tradition, it's also like, "What's new?" They're always pushing the trends and that's been a historical reality. So the idea of, "Oh, she's a very traditional something," what is tradition? Tradition has always been extremely dynamic. I think we'll have to think way beyond that as well. And if you go back to West African traders centuries ago in particular, it was a cutthroat business to trade textiles. So, it's like, there's so much intelligence and agency in African fashion. It's not just like, "Oh, this tradition needs to put this on over and over and over again."

A lot of your photographs focus on the Western parts of Africa; countries like Niger, Morocco, Angola. Is there any desire to expand and add photographs from other parts of the continent?

Absolutely. I've done some writing about Namibian women's fashion, more contemporary fashion. And I want to do much, much more. The book goes from Morocco to Congo, mostly on the coast, and then it goes up into West Africa, but I had to do that because I can't do 54 countries.

It was exhausting. But at least there was a clear network because the photographers were moving along the same routes as the fashions. So it was really easy for me as I knew the trading routes and the exchanges whereas a lot of Southern Africa, I don't know so well. I've never been to East Africa. I've been to the West and the North. South African fashion, for example, is it's own culture. It's a whole other thing.

Before COVID-19, I was talking to people about doing some exhibitions in Ghana and Kenya. We were talking about doing exhibitions and the planning was in place. Part of the reason for having the archive and then the book is that I want there to be much more interaction around that stuff. I don't like the idea of the photo as this private art object that belongs to me. I really want to put them in places that make people interact and think about them.

4. Untitled, c. 1950s, Barthelely Kone, MaliImage supplied.

What is your biggest hope for this lookbook and I suppose for the archive as a whole?

The lookbook, it's a love letter to the ancestors and it's a love letter to us, who are the living and who come from the women that are in the book. Edwidge Danticat, in the intro, talks about it as a community album. I have that feeling like it belongs to all of us and that it's in some way for all of us. So I want people to have that pleasure in knowing. I also want to change the narrative of men and Black women, in art and history, etcetera. The potential is everywhere. We all have family pictures, and I think that it's really nice to be able to value them and to look at them differently.

I have friends that have seen the book and I know they have brilliant photos at home. They're like, "Oh, we have this same kind of photo of my grandfather, my grandmother or whatever." I think that it's possible that you may have looked at that image of your father and be like, "Oh, that's a dirty old photo." But it has the potential for so much more.

For anyone interested in knowing more about the lookbook and accessing it in some way, what are some of the avenues with regards to that?

Well, I'm hoping that we're going to get it to South Africa. That we're going to get a publisher that will buy it or somebody that will work with the US distributors and England. So that's wonderful. But I have a website and although it doesn't have everything, it has quite a bit. So people can access us either on Instagram or this site. And the other thing is that there are some images in the book by Frida Orupabo. She's Nigerian and she does collage work using photographs. She's really brilliant. She was in the 2019 Venice Biennale, and she's blown up quite a bit. But I asked her if she wanted to do something with the archives. So she went in and she made these brilliant collages where she just upturns everything.

Image supplied.

The African Lookbook can also be purchased here.

Editor's Note: Catherine McKinley is of African-American heritage. She was adopted by a white couple as a child although her biological father is African-American with grandparents of Cape Verdean descent.

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Image courtesy of the artist

Spotlight: NK Is The Future and Star of His Own Show

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

In our 'Spotlight' series, we highlight the work of photographers, visual artists, multimedia artists, and more who are producing vibrant, original work.

In our latest piece, we spotlight Ghanaian digital artist NK. The self-proclaimed Afrocentric visual artist's love for drawing and sketching at a young age pushed him to explore the many ways in which modern technology supports and advances creativity. Simply playing around with a popular photo editing app propelled the young artist into a world of self discovery, empowerment, and a keen understanding about how big the Universe we call home actually is. As the digital creative puts it, "I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art." Armed with a keen interest in all things Afrofuturist, NK's futuristic eye has gained the teen artist recognition from some of his industry faves, too.

We spoke with the 18-year-old visual artist about creating art from his surroundings and empowering his generation.

Responses have been edited for length and clarity.


Describe your background as an artist and the journey you have taken to get to where it is today.

I grew up with an interest in art and drawing. I loved to draw and sketch, usually with both pen and pencils, whatever was interesting around me. I would make compositions of items within my surroundings and paste them on the walls of my parent’s rooms. My interest in the digital world peaked around the ages of 14 and 15 -- I've always been intrigued by astronauts and futuristic technology. I started digital art in 2017 when I created 2D pieces on the PicsArt app on a phone at home. Eventually, I gained access to the Adobe Photoshop software.

Artists like David Alabo, Beeple, Basquiat, and Juan Carlos Ribas inspired me and also made me think of what I could achieve if I tried. I spent a lot of time watching tutorial videos and related content online to be able to develop my skill. Initially, I created my pieces by combining a number of stock images and online resources to create an entirely new fictional scene. Around early 2020 I had a creative block and was desperate to find new sources of inspiration. Over time I came to the realization that my inspiration surrounded me and that I shouldn’t have to force creativity. I did more research on Afrocentric art and stepped out of my comfort zone to create my first Afrocentric pieces, “Gateway to Paradise” and “Modernization”. These pieces attracted a lot of attention and also the smArt magazine which granted me my first interview and magazine feature opening the door to new relationships in the creative industry, various opportunities, and collaborations.

What are the central themes in your work?

My work is mainly centered around the expression of development in the Black experience and empowering African Culture. I try to factor in Afrofuturism and Afrocentrism in making my pieces whether it’s how my models are dressed, their accessories, or represented by items that surround them. My pieces are intended to put forward the message of creating brighter futures and realities where Africans thrive. This helps give my pieces in themselves an identity.

How did you decide on using a digital medium for your art?

Even though I do draw and sketch, I also feel very comfortable using digital software which to me offers endless possibilities. I believe that using digital media as an African artist helps bridge the gap between technology and cultural art, directly falling in line with my field of interest, Afrofuturism.

How has the pandemic affected you creatively?

The start of the pandemic in 2020 was devastating. A lot happened during that period. It was during the lockdown that I made the decision to transition into creating Afrocentric art. We were made to take a break from school, which freed up a lot of my time. I had the time to research, watch tutorials and practice more. It might have been one of the most defining years for me as an artist. It also granted me a larger audience as everyone was made to work from home. I actually learned a lot and worked hard during that period and this led to my work improving massively.

Can you describe your artistic relationship with ‘Afro-futurism’?

Afrofuturism is a theme I can really relate to as a young African. It's our responsibility to contribute to our development as a people. I think my interest in space and what could exist outside the world we live in also had an impact on my desire to incorporate futuristic technology with cultural art. I like to think of what we can achieve, the seemingly impossible things, and then I pour out those thoughts and ideas into my art and that is why I immediately fell in love with Afrofuturism. We are the future, the stars of our own show.

Can you talk about your use of colors and accessories in your art?

The most dominant figure in my pieces is usually the black figure/model which usually stands out as the main subject. Regarding the backgrounds, I usually try to make a scene with colors to create a particular mood or in some of my pieces to complement the clothes of the model, usually African prints. They range from solid backgrounds to gradients and various sky textures. I use different cultural accessories both for beautification and also to provide that Afrocentric feel and message. I love to use various beads, bracelets, and traditional cloths with interesting textures to convey these messages of who we are as Africans and where we come from.


Artwork by NK

"Cultural Adornment"

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Nigerian-American Jackie Aina Catches Flames For Insensitive New Candle

The s-candle burns bright on Twitter as the Youtuber's 'Sòrò Sókè' candle sparks fury over the political meaning behind the name.

We didn't think this week we would see drama from a candle release. But here we are.

Nigerian-American Youtuber Jackie Aina has angered the Nigerian online community after the latest release from her lifestyle candle brand Forvr Mood. The candle, titled"Sòrò Sókè" which translates to "Speak Up", has the Nigerian community up in arms as the saying was originally used during the inhumane #ENDSARS saga that saw the Nigerian government willfully gun down peaceful protesters.

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Fireboy DML On Embracing His Inner 'Playboy,' Stepping Outside & Learning to Let Go

On Playboy, Fireboy moves further away from his previous records and embraces the mainstream afrobeats sound hinted in recent hits like "Peru" and "Bandana." We sit down with the Nigerian star to talk about his new album.

“I would like to discuss my forthcoming album only, nothing else. That is where my headspace right now.”

Nigerian superstar Fireboy DML draws up the rules of engagement as soon as we get on a Zoom call. The notoriously reticent singer, fresh from enjoying the biggest year of his musical career, powered by the international breakthrough of his single "Peru," is checking in from London. The city has become somewhat of a second home for him of late and it is here that Fireboy is ensconced while getting ready to kick off promotional activities for his third studio album, Playboy, which arrived last Friday.

The 14-track album comes almost two years after Fireboy’s last pop effort, Apollo ,which in turn was released about nine months after his stellar debut, Laughter, Tears & Goosebumps. On Playboy, Fireboy moves further away from his previous records and embraces the mainstream afrobeats sound hinted in recent hits like "Peru" and "Bandana," with newbie Asake.

He tells OkayAfrica about putting the album together below.

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Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

'Ile Owo' Director Dare Olaitan on Exploring the Human Condition Through Film

Director Dare Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Dare Olaitan was 26 when his first feature film, Ojukokoro: Greed,, was released in the cinemas. The crime thriller, which was released in 2016, received positive reviews and was nominated for the Africa Movie Academy Award for Best Nigerian Film in 2018. Knock Out Blessing, his second film, also got an AMAA nomination the following year. Dwindle, his third, — which is coming to Netflix later this month — was co-directed with Kayode Kasum last year.

In his latest film, Ile Owo, Olaitan aims to capture the horrific by exploring social hierarchies, poverty, class politics, and religion in the Nigerian society. The psychological trailer stars Immaculata Oko, Tina Mba, Akin Lewis, Bisola Aiyeola, Efe Iwara and a host of others.

In this interview with OkayAfrica, Olaitan talks about his filmmaking process and his attempt to re-educate the audience on the impact of unchecked capitalism.

Ile-Owo screenshot two women

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

Ile-Owo is your fourth film, but the first horror. What drew you to this genre and why did you decide horror was the most fitting form to tell the story?

I think horror movies are a great way to deal with social issues by motifs and metaphors to illustrate things that I am concerned about at the moment. I am also interested in the global interest in the horror genre and its ability to travel. I would say Ile Owo isn’t a true horror film. It’s closer to a psychological thriller.

Of course, horror is not new in Nigerian films, and quite a number of millennials, including you, who grew up in the country can attest to watching them. Was there something you wanted to do differently?

I feel like horror exploded in the Nigerian film industry as a reaction to the dictatorship of [Sani] Abacha in the early '90s. This made our films metaphors for the social problems with evangelical and pentecostal churches and movements growing in that time. Ile Owo is a retread of those thoughts and feelings. Just updated for 2022.

It's interesting you mentioned religious movements. Ile Owo confronts social hierarchies, hardship, and the ways religion serves as succor for many. How much can relate to that?

I think it’s impossible to grow up in a third world country and not witness the impact economics has on many people. Religion creates some sense of structure and safety in a chaotic environment. The worse the economic situation of a region the higher the religious fervor.

Can you talk a bit about your technique, particularly on evoking fear on the big screen?

I knew my limitations and the limitations of the crew, so I tried to evoke fear in the mind of the viewer. By creating situations where the audience’s imagination completes the scare thus making it all the more personal.

And did you achieve that? Do you think the audience had enough material to work with?

I think to an extent. There is always room to grow. I learned lessons, I can say that much.

What lessons?

What Nigerians like to watch and how to structure things better. In terms of production, I’ve never done anything of this magnitude. I learned more about VFX.

You've spoken in the past about your interest in making seven films based on the seven deadly sins, which will be titled after each sin. You've made Ojukokoro (Greed). Where does Ile Owo come in? And why is exploring these themes important to you?

The seven deadly sins are an important thematic element for me. They represent some commonality in the human experience. Things people in every culture can relate to and have experienced in their daily lives. Ile Owo is not part of the seven. Igberaga (Pride) is the next one on the slate.

Ile-Owo screenshot man in car

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

What exactly did you want to say in Ile Owo?

Ile Owo is really a film about the subjection of Nigerian women in the traditional marriage structures, how they are exploited by the expectations of culture and lose their lives and youth to support men who use them for personal gain. That was the nugget that informed the writing and creation of the story. I just had to obfuscate through metaphors and motifs.

Past conversations on social media have shown that some key players in Nollywood don't take criticism very well. How do you navigate unpleasant remarks about your work?

I can only speak for myself but I know I have no problem with well-intentioned criticism. I make art so it’s nice to get the thoughts of the people it was created for. I think the problem comes in with poorly-intentioned criticism. I have gotten reviews that called me stupid or foolish. I don’t think reviews like that help anyone and make it harder for creatives to express themselves.

How does your background in Economics and Business Management influence your work as a filmmaker?

It experiences the way I view life as it was the first viewpoint I used to parse reality. It’s evident in all my work as my subject matter almost always covers inequality and the rising gap between the rich and the poor. I think capitalism has become unchecked and I am doing my little part to re-educate the audience.

I recall a character hallucinating in Ojukokoro. There's a similar element in Ile Owo, portrayed by the protagonist's father. You seem keen on exploring the intersection of mental illness and the supernatural.

What is mental illness and what is supernatural? Are they not two shirts cut from the same fabric? I am not sure to be honest. I just like to mess with themes that are interesting to me. I think there is a thing among indigenous creatures where people who have mental illnesses are seen to be closer to the supernatural. Perhaps this is an extension of that.

Director Dare Olaitan

Photo Credit: Victor Lopez

As the writer and director, you must have had the most influence on the outcome of this film. What other factors impacted the production? If you could change anything in the process, from ideation to premiere, what would that be?

Nigeria. Making films in Nigeria is very hard. Filmmaking is akin to war. We must conquer the reality and bend it to our will in order to for 90-120 minutes, capture the audience in disbelief and play them to our wishes. Nigeria makes this hard as life here is already war. Budgetary concerns, technical inability to accomplish some of our goals are things that will always impact production. I wish I had more time and money.

What are the three things filmmakers just starting out should bear in mind?

Your message. Your reasons for doing it. Your tone. These things will guide you and stop you from missteps. I wish I had that knowledge when I started.

It's fascinating how you're able to move across different genres: crime, comedy, and psychological thriller. You're a big fan of Quentin Tarantino, and that's evident in your work. Who are some of the filmmakers that have had the most influence on your work and why?

Robert Rodriguez. Martin Scorsese. [Francis Ford] Coppola. These are the people whose films I look up too. We might have the same content in terms of premise but I like to see what they do to navigate problems because as a director all you are doing is really solving problems and translating ideas into images. I watched a lot of their film commentaries when I started out, so their voices sort of guide me.


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