The Way She Looks
A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture

Ryerson Image Centre, Toronto
9/11/2019 — 12/8/2019


About the exhibition

In collaboration with The Walther Collection, the Ryerson Image Centre (RIC) in Toronto will present a major exhibition exploring African photographic portraiture through the perspectives of women, both as sitters and photographers. Guest curated by scholar Sandrine Colard, The Way She Looks: A History of Female Gazes in African Portraiture features contemporary works by female artists alongside twentieth-century studio portraits and early colonial images and albums, exclusively from The Walther Collection's holdings.

NV 614 Nonstikelelo Lolo Veleko Nonkululeko
Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko, Nonkululeko, "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder," 2003
NV 298 Nonstikelelo Lolo Veleko Cindy Nkuli 2003
Nontsikelelo "Lolo" Veleko, Cindy and Nkuli, "Beauty is in the Eye of the Beholder," 2003

Throughout the history of photography, African women's bodies have been repeatedly objectified and fetishized. Furthermore, the African female gaze is one of the most under-studied subjects in histories of visuality—a frequent assumption of powerlessness has caused researchers to overlook these women's capacity to shape their own representations. On rare occasions when this viewpoint has been examined, women's gazes are described as vital only to their own "limited" perspective. Drawing on the uniquely expansive range of images in The Walther Collection, The Way She Looks provides a timely historical overview of African female experience in photography and shifts the focus towards women's gazes, highlighting female acts of looking that challenge the male-dominated narrative of the medium. With over 100 works by both female and male practitioners from across Africa, the exhibition emphasizes the multiple and nuanced ways women see and present themselves, both as photographic subjects and in positions behind the camera.

MS 216 Walther Collection Sidibe Malick Vues De Dos Back View Untitled 1999
Malick Sidibé, Vues de dos (Back View), 1999
JB 932 Jodi Bieber Babalwa 2008
Jodi Bieber, Babalwa, "Real Beauty," 2008

The exhibition is divided chronologically into three parts. The first section presents the moment of initial encounter between African women and photography, through nineteenth- and early twentieth-century photographic prints, cartes de visite, postcards, albums, and books from Southern and Eastern Africa. The products of both unidentified and well-known European photographers, these studio and ethnographic portraits, originally objects of exotic curiosity, reveal more complex depictions than merely exposed and submissive female sitters, despite the unequal power dynamics of colonial imagery. African female subjects did find opportunities for self-affirmation, also occasionally commissioning portraits of themselves from black-owned studios. In this wide range of situations, from coercion to consent, these women returned forthright gazes, and displayed inarguable self-possession.

19 C 1748 Moore Macomo and his chief wife cropped
William Moore (attr.), Inscribed: "Macomo and his chief wife" [Portrait of Maqomama and his wife Katyi], South Africa, ca. 1896
19 C 1495 Barnard Bushwoman and Children South Africa cropped
Samuel Baylis Barnard, Inscribed: "Bushwoman & children S. Africa" [Portrait of !Kweiten ta //ken], South Africa, 1874–1875
19 C 1533 Lewis Wedding photograph cropped
T. Frederick Lewis, Wedding photograph, South Africa, early 20th century

The second section features women's portraits since the 1950s by notable West African photographers, such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keïta. From the middle of the twentieth century, African women became regular patrons of the portrait studios that were flourishing, particularly in cities. Desiring to be represented in front of the camera, women sitters styled themselves, carefully chose their outfits, commissioned the photographer, and performed during studio sessions.

SK 853 Keita Seydou Untitled cropped
Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1952–1955
SK 145 Keita Seydou Untitled 1952 1955 cropped
Seydou Keïta, Untitled, 1952–1955

The patriarchal imprint of male-owned studios was therefore frequently challenged by the self-fashioning agency of the women stepping in front of their lenses. At the same time, documentary photographers began to record the African female experience in a period of rapid social, cultural and political change as many nations prepared for and achieved independence. This was especially true in the decades surrounding the end of apartheid in South Africa, when numerous image-makers—white and black, but still predominantly male—captured self-aware subjects in moments of hardship, joy, resistance, and tenderness.

ZM 291 Muholi Zanele Miss Dvine I 2007
Zanele Muholi, Miss D'vine I, 2007
Zanele Muholi, Miss D'vine II, 2007

The final section highlights a number of significant African female and non-binary artists who have emerged since the 1990s, including Yto Barrada, Jodi Bieber, Zanele Muholi, Lebohang Kganye, Grace Ndiritu, Nontsikelolo "Lolo" Veleko, Sue Williamson, and Mimi Cherono Ng'ok. Exploring a wide array of subjects, from feminist, queer, and gender issues to history, kinship, migration, memory, and loss, many of the works made by these artists challenge conventional understandings of African female photographic representation. As the imaging of black female subjects continues to be a site of reductive and denigrating perceptions, and as a new wave of women's voices rise to reclaim their fair share of humanity, these artists intervene upon some of our age's most pressing conversations.

2019 09 Ryerson Install View 01
2019 09 Ryerson Install View 02
2019 09 Ryerson Install View 03
Installation views © Larissa Issler, Ryerson Image Centre, 2019

Artworks on display

    Artists on display

    About the Curator

    Sandrine Colard is an art historian, writer, and curator based in New York and Brussels. A specialist of modern and contemporary African arts (PhD Columbia University), Colard is a professor at Rutgers University-Newark and has been appointed Artistic Director of the 6th Lubumbashi Biennale 2019, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Colard is currently at work on a book about the history of photography in the DRC (awarded 2019–2020 Ford Foundation Fellowship).

    About Ryerson Image Centre

    The Ryerson Image Centre's (RIC) mission focuses on the research, teaching and exhibition of photography and related media. It is an active partner within the academic fabric of Ryerson University, the cultural network of greater Toronto, and the national and international artistic community. Its exhibition program addresses topics of social, cultural, aesthetic and historical concern from a variety of contemporary perspectives. Additionally, its Peter Higdon Research Centre conducts and facilitates inquiry into primary resource materials and offers workshops, lectures, symposia and publication programs. The RIC maintains a collection of photography spanning the medium's history, as well as several artist and journalism archives—including the renowned Black Star Collection of twentieth century photo-reportage.


    Ryerson Image Centre
    33 Gould Street
    Toronto, Ontario
    M5B 1W1 Canada
    +1 416 979 5164

    This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Find out more.