The African Lookbook with Catherine McKinley

0.75x 1x 1.25x 1.5x 2x 0:0000:43:56 The African Lookbook with Catherine McKinley


Episode Summary

The African Lookbook is a visually-stunning, historically significant, and lovingly curated collection of a century of African women’s imagery. Catherine McKinley has collected thousands of images, many given to her by friends who entrust these precious photographs to her care. Listen to the episode to learn how the camera and the sewing machine are both tools of colonialism. Patreon supporters can see the uncut video of Lisa and Catherine’s conversation, which is about 30 minutes longer than the published episode.

Episode Notes

The Stitch Please podcast will celebrate its 100th episode on  9/15/2021. As part of that effort, we are looking to add 100 additional  Black Women Stitch Patreon supporters by the 100th Stitch Please podcast episode publication date. These funds will be used to build financial stability for the podcast while alleviating the pressure of a solo operation.  Will you join us? For as little as $2 a month, you can help Lisa hire consistent editorial and production support.  Thank you SEW much to our new Patrons! Welcome Cynthia, Terry, Kacina, Alyssa, Cathy, Heather, Shannon, Brandy, Gaëlle, Kristi, Lee, Mo Jo, Alison, Shonkeisha, and Kate. THANK YOU!

Learn more about Catherine McKinley

Instagram: @the_african_lookbook  and@cemck2

Catherine says that some of her “most meaningful experiences were sitting at sewing tables in Africa and watching the contact between a seamstress and clients. Sewing orders or elaborate alterations are a weekly or monthly indulgence for many women, so the gossip and planning, the low grade competition, and the intimacy of fittings, etc. was wonderful, not to mention the latest styles and new cloth designs, which changed so rapidly.”

Read Full Transcript

Lisa Woolfork 0:15

Hello Stitchers. Welcome to Stitch Please, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. I'm a fourth generation sewing enthusiast with more than 20 years of sewing experience. I am looking forward to today's conversation. So sit back, relax, and get ready to get your stitch together.

Hello, everybody, and welcome to the Stitch Please podcast. I'm your host, Lisa Woolfork. And those of you who watch, our Patreon supporters who get to watch these videos, and those who listened to the podcast for more than three episodes, know that I always say that every episode is special, right? But this episode is especially special, because I am talking today with the archivist and the genius behind The African Lookbook. And if you are a Patreon supporter, you get to see us talking about this. And it's a lookbook with pictures. So you're going to want to have a Patreon subscription. And honestly, why do you not? It's only $2 a month, I am certain that you have couch cushion money that you could donate to Black Women Stitch. And if you can't, leave us a kind review. I am honored and delighted to have this woman on stage with me today, whose work has been featured in The New York Times, who's been talked about at the Schomburg, who has been interviewed. And the foreword and the intro for her book feature, like, two of my faves. Edwidge Danticat, whose work that I started reading back in 1994, in graduate school, when Krik? Krak! came out. And so she's wrote an intro. And then, Jacqueline Woodson wrote the foreword. And both of these women are both Black women writers, they both have sewing backgrounds. I am in a constant state of swoon over this entire process. So welcome, Catherine McKinley, thank you so much for being here with us today. I'm so grateful to have you. Thank you, and welcome.

Catherine McKinley 2:31

Thanks for inviting me, this is one of the things you find in your email that you get very excited about. So I am happy to hear from you.

Lisa Woolfork 2:40

I am so delighted. I mean, seriously, you have zero idea about how, like, psyched I am. So I want to start with a bit about your premise. In the book, you say that the sewing machine and the camera are two tools that arrived on the continent, in a colonialist, almost a violent capacity, right? Ways to extract things and resources from the continent, and to circulate images in the photography's sake, to naturalize that. Can you talk a bit more about - tell us a bit about the camera, and how that works with the camera? And then we could shift to the sewing machine.

Catherine McKinley 3:27

Yeah, both arrived within roughly a decade of each other. So in the mid 1800s, between the 1850s, 1860s. And they were, in the beginning, these instruments that were reserved for the elites and for colonial masters. So there were very few of them, they trickled in on both sides. And in the case of the camera, it was an instrument that the British governments in particular, in 1860, just around the time that it arrived, it was meant to dominate, separate, categorize African peoples. It was a deliberate measure. It was a command made to everybody in the colonies to use it, and particularly in that way. So they would go on expeditions up into the hinterland and take photos of people, and you see all these kind of literal catalogs where they've written the race or tribe of each member, and have this proliferation of photos as a way to understand and codify the places that they were controlling. And they were also used in pseudoscience, and in medical explorations and medical administration. So that was one of the primary uses. And the secondary use was to take those photos and circulate them, whether as postcards or just as photos, they would send in envelopes all throughout the colonies and back home to Europe to keep up a kind of morale about what the colonial project was. So the idea is that if I send this picture of these people in Sierra Leone, to a colony in Jamaica or India, or in the South Pacific, or wherever it is, then I have the power to keep everyone invested in this thing that we're doing. So the pictures that we're taking just have this enormous reach all over the world. And even now, as I'm collecting them, I may find a photo that could be from Malaysia, of somebody in Nigeria, and then it's passed through three or four different hands in Europe, or maybe in Japan. And then it finds its way to me in New York and becomes part of my collection in a way there without the strictures of that economy. But even as a collector now, I'm still involved in this kind of economy of image-making and dissemination. At the same time with the sewing machine, they arrived primarily for uniform making, and also for the stitching of cloth. So they arrived in the colonial forts along the coast of West Africa. And they were used to either stitch these pieces of cloth - many of them were, where the cotton may have been extracted from Africa or from India, they may have gone back to Europe, been dyed in India, returned to Africa. And then they were being traded primarily in the slave trade in exchange for human lives. So a two yard piece of indigo cloth, in particular, might buy one human being, three human beings. You can see in the slave ledgers these kinds of transactions. So those sewing machines are being used to sew the edges on those things, and then also to make uniforms that were used in missionary projects, or other things. And again, the uniform was being thought of as a way - it was used as a means of control. You got either status because you wore the uniform of a low rank soldier, or you wore a missionary uniform that gave you social status, even though people were resisting that status. They were constantly resisting, but also it was being reinforced. So for the book, I was sitting one day at a dinner with a couple of white men, who are the biggest collectors of African photography. And they have these vast collections. One of them owns a museum in Germany, on and on. And we're sitting at dinner talking, and I was bored with the conversation, bored with my position at the table. And I think I just blurted out that for the African continent, for African women, the sewing machine and the camera were the two most important commodities. And they all looked at me like, what? And they challenged it, they were like, what are you talking about? There was the car, there was various machinery, there was power in and of itself. And I was like, power didn't reach into most people's homes. Most people didn't have access to automobiles, but the camera and the sewing machine were two things that became democratized pretty quickly. And so what do we make of that? They were two things that African women did have more access to than not, and had a certain kind of control, and were able to offer themselves through those things. So I got stubborn about the idea. And I said, Okay, whether or not you can punch holes in my argument, I'm going to take the argument all the way with this archive, and I'm going to see what I can make of it.

Lisa Woolfork 8:27

I love that story. And I thank you for being stubborn. They want to say that the automobile was so democratizing. When you think about the Nana Benzes, for example, the reason they can have those Benzes is because they have fabric and because of the sewing machine, so absolutely. I was thinking about, just, I would just love to hear your opinion on this from the photography side. There's an African philosopher who I absolutely love, Achille Mbembe, and he has an article called Necropolitics, do you know what that means? Yeah, in the piece he talks about part of the colonial project is to convince the people that are being dominated that everything is fine. And he had this one phrase that never left me and it was, "Enshrine their despoilment." And he talked about that when you have a kind of colonial regime, that there is a way that the despoilment, the destruction, the violation of the colonized people, becomes enshrined, and it feels like the photograph is part of that.

Catherine McKinley 9:33

It is, absolutely. The photograph itself, I would say absolutely. But also the cloth. I think what people are wearing, very much so. I'm wearing - I don't know if you could see, but these are two different African wax prints. Yes, made by the Vlisko company, which is one of the oldest, most important, best wax companies. It's based in Holland. And this cloth that's synonymous with Africa in many ways, is one of the biggest colonial products. The Vlisko companies, if you go to Cape Coast Castle in Ghana, you'll see their emblem in the wrought iron gates of the fort. And it's something people don't know.

Lisa Woolfork 10:19

I didn't. I've never been to Africa. So I've never been. I have read about the castles, and of course, so I know, and I've had students that have gone on trips. I did not know that Vlisko...

Catherine McKinley 10:29

Yeah, where the governor stands and where the governor's porters were, you'll see the Vlisko, which was originally [indecipherable], you'll see their emblem in the gate along with King Williams' emblem,

Lisa Woolfork 10:45

My goodness.

Catherine McKinley 10:46

So there's nothing, I don't think like these bright displays - I wear Vlisko, I'm very aware of the history. I've been in the archives of Vlisko, the company itself has the feeling. It has the air of a concentration camp. And I know that I'm not the only one that said that because I know of about three or four other black women that have been able to enter the archives, it's very hard to get access. And they all had that same feeling of this ominous place, where the grounds don't feel quite right. It feels like there's a kind of destruction. But I think that there's nothing more than this wax print that really is that kind of enshrinement. Because we all wear it, and we do not understand it. Even me, as much as I know the history: I have a love for it. It's intoxicating.

Lisa Woolfork 11:33

lt is like, talk about hashtag problematic faves, right? Because what's happening with Vlisko, at least in my opinion, just from stories. As of two weeks ago, there was this conglomerate of African owners that wanted to buy into Blisko so that they could have profit sharing, and they could have all of this. And the whole deal was broken down. It was all derailed because of one disgruntled white person.

Catherine McKinley 11:58

Yeah, it was a mostly Nigerian contingent, and they had millions, millions of dollars to invest in the company. And Vlisko is on the verge of bankruptcy and has been looking for a long time, they've been courting investors, and the sale of the company. And they just, after six months or so of negotiating, they undercut the whole thing. But when I visited I told them of a friend of mine who's a dyer, a very famous dyer, [indecipherable] mercy of comme si in Accra. And she told me that she married a Dutch man and went to Holland for maybe a decade. And she told me that she had worked in the factory. So when I got there, I showed them a picture of her, and I said she worked here in the factory. And they said, No. They were so upset by that. They said, No, it's impossible that she had ever worked here in this factory. And I was saying, But why? And he said the only way she could have ever worked here as someone who was making up the cloths, meaning literally that she was sitting there folding them and putting them into boxes to ship. And I said how is that? And he said, First of all, no non-Dutch person worked in this factory until the 80s, and then they started to invite the French and a few other Europeans. But he said no African had worked in the factory until during that era, and much later. It was just, it was stunning. It's like, okay.

Lisa Woolfork 13:25

And then I was on Instagram, just the other day they posted this - they had Vlisko, because I don't know if I follow them - or no, I don't follow them on Instagram. But they popped up on my feed somehow. And it was this gorgeous spread. An African woman with this gorgeous fabric on this beautiful gown that she was wearing. And the caption was something about "a space of our own." And I wrote, who is "our"? You mean the Dutch? Because you cannot mean Black people or Africans in any way, considering what you have done to keep Black people away from the profit side of your business.

Catherine McKinley 14:08

Yeah, no, it's really incredible. It's not good.

Lisa Woolfork 14:13

You can take the colonizer out of the colony, but you can't take the colonizing out of the colonizer.

Catherine McKinley 14:21

They do have a few factories in Ivory Coast and Ghana. And if you look at the history of the anti-colonial movement, the kind of rise and fall of those factories - it's hand in hand with what goes on. There was a period during the Rawlings era, so this would be in the 1980s. Rawlings stepped in and they started to renegotiate, like what under the new regime, they started to renegotiate what the factory would look like. And he insisted, as many other governments did, that if cloth is 60% or more of the things imported into this country, we need to control the manufacturing of cloth. So at different times governments have banned imports, but they don't have anything else to replace it. So he was negotiating for control of the Vlisko plant in Ghana. And he did an exchange for, I think it was for palm oil, and some palm oil is used in the production of soap. And so there was an exchange that was made. But Vlisco left the company with very little of the machinery. It was old machinery. Within a decade, it was falling apart, they couldn't get access to dyes. So there was a whole period where every cloth that was made was this kind of funny yellow, a funny yellow and blue, it was two tones, versus the kind of complexity that used to be there. And very soon, everyone had to start begging the Dutch to come back. And it's been this kind of cycle of abuses and exchanges and negotiations. And if you visit the plants, like GTP, Ghana Textiles Production, is owned by Vlisko. And I've been to the plant, and the workers have to strip down and put on these jumpsuits during the day. And then when they leave and come to the gate, they have to strip naked. They do body cavity checks, because they're afraid of people taking pictures and because the Chinese will rip things off so quickly. So they're very afraid of designs being leaked outside.

Lisa Woolfork 16:38

I saw that.

Catherine McKinley 16:39

Yeah, you see this horrific treatment of workers.

Lisa Woolfork 16:44

Textile workers and garment workers in manufacturing plants. Absolutely.

Catherine McKinley 16:48

And the chemicals are bleeding into the ground and the water supply. And it's really something else.

Lisa Woolfork 16:54

It is a problem. And I was reminded, I spoke earlier this year with Aiwan Obinyan. She did the film Wax Print. And so we talked a lot about that. And it's just so...I found it incredibly ironic that Vlisko was annoyed, maybe they're more than annoyed, with Chinese imports and Chinese knockoffs and how they're also very good. So they can put two pieces of fabric next to each other, and it was impossible to tell which was real and which was not.

Catherine McKinley 17:23

But what's happening now is that the Chinese are not necessarily doing the wax process, so they'll just rip off the design and stamp it on the cloth. But it doesn't have any of the layers of the wax. And one thing that people don't understand necessarily about fashion in Africa, is that people, like, first of all, it has to be accessible. Vlisko cloth is very expensive. It's $100 for a five yard piece, which is how it's sold. But also that people don't, like - Ghanaians, the land of gold, Ghanaians don't necessarily need gold jewelry, pure gold jewelry, they will be happy with something that it's about the shine and the energy and the charge of an object. And that's the thing people don't understand. They'll be like, Oh, Ghanaians are stupid, they don't care about real gold. But it's not. We care about representation, we care about its use in these other, like, more esoteric ways. It doesn't have to weigh something on the scale. So it's the same with cloth, it's that people are willing - people love a piece of cloth that's new or novel or has colors you haven't seen before. It's like, the penchant is for what's new, what keeps us ahead of styles. African women are very proud of of being like the forerunners and being the style setters.

Lisa Woolfork 18:43

And this is the thing I find so frustrating when I started to think so much more about wax print and this kind of clothing relationship. Because if it was not for the input of African women, Vlisco would not now own the copyright or the trademark and the exclusivity to all of these designs, like, thousands of designs that they own. That came from the hearts and minds and creative energy from Black women, African women, who get completely cut out of the upper level. Not just the decisions, but the product.

Catherine McKinley 19:19

At the same time, a lot of African women built mega fortunes on trade.

Lisa Woolfork 19:24

Yes, yes, that's true.

But I know what you mean, they're not able to buy in that intense way that builds wealth.

That can build intergenerational wealth. And that was the point from Aiwan that I kept live for me. She was like, "Whenever you buy Vlisko, you are helping to promote the intergenerational wealth of Dutch children." And I want my purchases to support intergenerational wealth for African children, for Ghanaian children. So I was also wondering, what do you think about this? Because the sewing machine as an object is something that I find has been therapeutic for me - some people say sewing is my therapy, I say nah, therapy is my therapy. Sewing is something I do because I am passionate for it, and I love it, and I love making things. But I was also thinking that there's also the ways that this can also be very negative. And it turns me back to Audre Lorde. So Audre Lorde says, of course, from the essay, The Master's Tools, and she's like, “The master's tools can never dismantle the master's house.” But then bell hooks would follow decades later to say that no, that's the only thing that can. She has this counter position. I tend to be on Audre's thought about this.

You're listening to the Stitch Please podcast, and I'm speaking today with Catherine McKinley, the author of The African Lookbook published by Bloomsbury, and when we return, we're going to continue this wonderful conversation after a very short break. Stay tuned. Hey, friends, hey, the Stitch Please podcast is about to publish its 100th episode. That's right, 100 episodes. As part of the celebration, we are launching 100 by 100 to help us get 100 more Patreon supporters by the 100th episode publication date on September 15, 2021. 100 additional Patreon supporters will give us the financial stability we need to hire editorial and production help, you can find the links to our Patreon in the show notes. Thank you so much for considering this, and thank you current and future Patreon supporters.

You're listening to the Stitch Please podcast and we are returning to the fantastic conversation with Catherine McKinley about The African Lookbook.

What do you think about that in the context of the sewing machine? Or we think about the sewing machine and the camera: have these two things been master's tools that, through your work, through the gorgeous archive that you've constructed, do you feel like it's dismantling these negative racist ideas that could be considered "master's house"? I'm not sure what - do you give both the camera and the sewing machine that same weight?

Catherine McKinley 22:07

I think it's a yes/and with both. So I'm with Audre, and I'm with bell, because I think it's a dialectic, it should be able to exist together. Even now I have mixed feelings about the sewing machine, like in most of West Africa, in particular. For young women and girls, there are very few choices, career choices, like for the mass of people, unless they're educated. There's seamstressing, there's catering, hair braiding, and trading in the market. You know, those are like the four or five kind of core possibilities. And it's so narrow, and it's all tied around the domestic sphere. And when it's tied to beauty, there's a way we revere the beauty that is African women's beauty, and at the same time, there's something deeply sad to me about it, because it's that kind of insistence that you look this way, that you invest this way, that your future depends on being beautiful in these very, very strict corners.

Lisa Woolfork 23:20

Yes. Yes.

Catherine McKinley 23:20

So, it's everything, because at the same time, that beauty has an enormous power. Textiles have an enormous power. And then I think it's also, just on a base level, it's a testament to what people did with what they had. I did an exhibition in Brooklyn three years ago called Auntie, as an homage to the auntie figure. And I was part of an exhibition in Morocco just before COVID, so as February, just as COVID was hitting. And it was about the gaze, and when we talk about African photography, there's a lot of preoccupation with the gaze. We'll use that term a lot. And I started, like, chafing because I was just like, each photo has such a depth of history, and we're still stuck on the gaze. And I'm not belittling - there's nothing wrong with this argument of the gaze, it's a very important thing. But it's almost like, I find a lot of people who curate don't study. And so they select these photos, and then like in Morocco, they were just having the most facile discussion about the gaze. And they were just like, taking everything they knew about Black women and attaching it to the gaze, and attaching it to these photos. And I was like, these women in these photos have their own histories. They're African women, they're not African American women. There's just - it begs for so much more depth in the conversation. So frustrated with that. When I came back and I was working on the book more, I was thinking, I want to push past this. And I want people to look not just at someone's eyeballs. But what does that button say? What does this thing in the corner say? What is her grasp, the way her hand is, or her foot? This is a lot. One foot: a woman can look completely content, and the foot is twisted up in a way that lets you know there was some tension in the taking of the photograph.

Lisa Woolfork 25:30

You talked about that in the Schomburg interview, about one of the photos. And one of the photos, a woman was posed very like unnaturally; it was hard to even read her full facial expression because it just felt like a mask. And then her foot was twisted. And I think either you, or, I think it was Amy you were speaking with, that foot was --

Catherine McKinley 25:49

So I started thinking like we can have another conversation about the gaze. "What do you see in her eyes," that's important. But what else can we read in this?

Lisa Woolfork 26:00

And I really appreciate the way that the narratives you attach to your photographs really do force us not to circumvent it because we want to get around it, but because it's that's just not the center of the story. You're not interested in what a white supremacist heteronormative gaze might necessarily look like and what it might do. We already know the gaze that has mastery attached to it, that has dominance and supervision attached to it, but that's not the only story of these photographs. And to give that gaze primacy is to reproduce the colonial project in and of itself, which is what you're unraveling.

Catherine McKinley 26:43

And then people dismiss the photos. They're like, "Oh, this is a colonial photograph, and she's exploited, so I'm done with it there." And I just think that's really short-sighted. Like I have a friend, he's a collector and a photographer in Senegal, and we have this little ongoing argument. I get it: like, for him, he only deals with African photographers making the images, he's not interested in any colonial photographer whatsoever. And that's a very particular niche. And I collect that way as well. But I'm not going to throw away a photo that I just showed you because the photographer is not African. And I'm not gonna back away from evidence of exploitation. Because I think people that dismiss those photographs, then they go home and they watch some garbage on TV, right? Or they do something else that replicates or even goes into something that's worse. So you walked away from our history and understanding the intensity of something because it was authored by somebody else, but then the woman in the photos offering herself - that's what I'm interested in.

Lisa Woolfork 27:51

Yes. And I think that's the investment that really sets your work apart. And so when you were talking before about some folks who, like, they curate without study. And I don't understand how you do that, I don't understand how one can curate without studying. And maybe that goes back to a question I wanted to ask you. What is the difference in your mind between a collector and a curator? Is there a difference between someone who likes to collect and build and store, and someone who is engaged in a deliberate curatorial process that might be driven by certain ideologies, certain perspectives, certain values, or principles, or ethics? Can you talk a bit more about that?

Catherine McKinley 28:39

Probably in the best circumstances, they overlap a lot. There're certainly collectors - I have friends that buy expensive paintings and keep them in drawers and catalog them and it's just about that ownership, and it's about the market, whatever. And then I have friends who are probably more like myself, where I didn't go and do a lot of formal study of photography. I collected and I got really interested in what was going on and I started reading and reading, or you collect and collect and you start seeing similarities or overlaps in what you have. So, the best collectors are curators or engage in curatorial work, and the best curators probably don't collect or they might collect, they may not. But they're hopefully engaged in study at that level, and that study of the market, the study of the object and what it means.

Lisa Woolfork 29:37

Because something that I often say, and I tell this to students and to anybody, I'm like, I feel that sometimes when it comes to stories of Black life, experiences of Black life, there's things that are widely circulated. They're pushed out for everyone, even like the most sacred moments of our death or murder. Just flung out, like it's just so much entertainment. And what it feels to me like, there's a constant demand for consumption without digestion. It's just - take it, bring it, eat it, and no one is stopping to think, "Wow, wow." I did not know that at Elmina Castle, for example, that Vlisco has their fucking initial in iron. What? Like, what?

Catherine McKinley 30:26

It's mind-blowing. I have to say that I was walking that line, I was doing my dialectic with Vlisco. But I really hit a max when I heard about the factory, and like this recent deal-making, and I'm starting to really want - I don't want to sell, I don't want to throw out all my clothes, but... Right? So in, let's see, like 1987 I think was the first time. Because I remember you couldn't get it easily, you had to go way out to New Jersey, they sold it in like, you had to buy 60 yards, which cost thousands of dollars. So we would either get like a group of people together to go in on, try to choose one or two, to buy that many yards. It was crazy. Or else you could go way out in New Jersey to some back lot warehouse, and you could buy a six or 12 yard piece. And again, I had a friend that danced at Alvin Ailey, and she would get a bunch of dancers together who wanted cloth, and we'd all pool our money, we'd drive out there, we'd fight over which one, nobody would be satisfied. But I would always get the catalog. So I have the Vlisko catalogs going back to that time. And if you look at - somebody should really do a study of the evolution of the campaigns. Because it went from a very folksy girl in the village thing through all these different iterations. And then it's fascinating, how they hooked people and what they're doing, and when they started really going after the African market, like on a very emotional level. It's a "your mother's heritage" level.

Lisa Woolfork 32:03

So that's the thing that gets me. The thing that gets me as a diasporic person who has, of course, roots in Africa, but doesn't know what they are, doesn't know what those connections are. I look at this, and I think African fabric, African fabric. I'm like now I'm kicking myself, I'm like, Why am I not naming boutiques? Why am I not naming adire? Why am I not naming kente? Which are actually African fabrics. And yet, the thing that's the most desirable is the stuff done by the white man who only wants Black people's money and never wants to profit share, but will take all the ideas, all the art, and you will love it. You will love it. And Dutch people will continue to get richer and richer. We pull together our pennies, or we do whatever. We see it as something that we claim. You know, it's like we claim it, but they don't claim us.

Catherine McKinley 32:58

Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely.

Lisa Woolfork 33:01

They don't see anything wrong with it. They don't see anything wrong with the way that they're holding things. They don't see anything wrong or inappropriate or bad about the way that they are conducting their business, even though we now have vocabularies to explain exactly why it is wrong, and exactly why it is. But of course, I would not imagine anything different. When you hold all the cards, when you have all the power, you really don't have to care what anybody else thinks. And unless you're going to have some kind of internal revolution, and develop a kind of ethical something, a conscience, that says, "Oh, wow, maybe I need to atone or repent or have some repair for the way that this company has participated in disrupting the lives of many people on the continent." What is their incentive to change?

Catherine McKinley 33:52

I can't remember his name, I'm very sorry - I've just been trying to think of it now. But he's a historian out of Yale, and he talks about how color in West Africa was more effective in domination than the gun. And he's talking about cloth in particular, and people's desire for certain kinds of consumption of goods, which was primarily cloth. They didn't have to trade guns, they could trade cloth and have that much power within those societies.

Lisa Woolfork 34:23

And you were explaining in the book about how these became part of dowries. The reason that the wrap is like five or six meters long is because that's something that you can use part of, and then you don't have to use all of it, and then you can reattach it and this is something that will grow with you. As you go through your marriage, as you go through adulthood, and so that it is absolutely important. Or what Christina Sharpe calls "in the wake," you know, that Blacks in the US, like, live within the wake of slavery and that these same things from back in the day, they show up and reverberate later. It doesn't surprise me that the search that you describe, of employees, is a remnant of the colonial era, and that this is a structure that was already in place, and what we'll just keep doing.

Catherine McKinley 35:08

I think Richard Wright was talking about the gold mines and being like, the cavity checks at the gold mines. It's just like, you know, they're worried that somebody is going to have the corner of a piece of cloth or a photo from a phone or something. The Chinese are that effective in ripping off the cloth. The other thing that's really hurt Vlisko is that the Chinese companies have - they're producing cloth, and they're sending it to Ghana, in particular, but not just Ghana. And I understand that they're quick with - they focus on language. And so they're teaching merchants local languages, not just like the dominant languages in various countries, but local, very specific local trade languages. And then sending them, like, to the northern part of the country, to all the places that Vlisko has traditionally not worried about accessing. Because the colonial model of Vlisco was that everybody stayed back in Holland, they sent the cloth down, they never visited, they sent the cloth to the female traders on the coast. And it all worked out from the coastal markets in their own networks, but the Chinese are going in and they're going and creating new markets in very remote areas, mastering the language so that they can trade really effectively. That has really undermined Vlisco.

Lisa Woolfork 36:37

It's interesting, because I do wonder sometimes what role xenophobia plays in attention being given to Chinese manufacturers, right? You can recognize, like, the harm or the damage that Chinese manufacturers come in, et cetera, et cetera. And yet we seem to be okay with the exploitation that the Dutch have been doing for 176 years. "No, no, not the Chinese! That's a bridge too far!" I remember you described one you just showed us as the Mona Lisa, you described it - maybe was one of the Sidibe images? I'm not sure.

Catherine McKinley 37:13

It's not actually one woman, so it's not a Mona Lisa. It just has an imprint in people's consciousness that's similar to a Mona Lisa. It's not an actual Mona Lisa, but this is a brilliant photo. It was taken three years after independence in Mali, and it's actually a portrait of siblings. People think they're lovers, but they're siblings.

Yeah, I saw it. I was like, "Look at them!"

Yeah, but their intimacy is just so lovely. But it's also this kind of idea of, like, indigeneity. And what is Malian for that era, and how quintessentially African this photo is, even though they're wearing Western dress.

Lisa Woolfork 37:59

What does it mean when someone - like, this is another untitled, undated one from Congo, of the lady with the flower in her hair and the flower necklace? Whose room is this? What does this - and I guess what I love about the way that you have exploded the idea of the gaze, is that we are intended, at least we are invited, I see an invitation in your work to think about how these women thought about themselves. Not, oh, let's look at them in a way that is objectifying, but let's read the story they are trying to tell us about themselves. Through composition, through background, through wardrobe, essentially.

Catherine McKinley 38:42

Because even those flowers, if you think about it, it's not your idea of a go-to in an African studio, to wear flowers in that way. So you wonder like, why? Was it directed by the photographer, or...? It just brings all these kinds of - I haven't seen that many photos with flowers.

Lisa Woolfork 39:03

Yeah. It's true. Just like the woman who looks like she's being fortified by all of her ancestors.

Catherine McKinley 39:12

Yes. That's what cloth is, like, people wear cloth to have that volume all across the continent, especially West Africa. The idea of volume. And people ask me, Why are so many people posed with, like, their hands on their knees, the legs spread, and they look big? So they look like this, sitting like this? And again, it was like the volume was prestige. It was power. So posing in that way, with layers of cloth, was always a display of one's power. We didn't have a small cloth.

Lisa Woolfork 39:44

No, no one's wearing small cloth. Life is too short to deal with small cloth. We want big. Catherine, can you tell me a bit about what's next for you? What is your next step? You've got this amazing book, and I do hope that your next step includes coming to Charlottesville, Virginia, I would love that to be part of the plan, and that I get to be the one that got to interview you. So what are your plans for your life, in addition to my plans for your life?

Catherine McKinley 40:11

I want to do a lot of exhibitions because the idea of the archive is - I'm uneasy, I'm very proud and happy to have all these things in my house and whatever, they give me immense joy. And at the same time, the idea is to really make this a resource for others. So before COVID, we were talking about doing a couple shows. And in Ghana, in particular, it's not going to work probably, we probably can't get back that plan. But I got a call today from somebody in Brazil who wants to try to do something. I'm looking into more ways of exhibiting the work. And I met with a book group in Accra last weekend. And some of it was love. One woman had the most gorgeous picture of the great-aunt or somebody with her sister, and they had like

Lisa Woolfork 41:03

The invitation is to discover the stories these women are telling about themselves, that I think, at least for me, helps me think about the story I'm telling about myself.

Catherine McKinley 41:14

At some part of my life, I realized I have my DNA results, and I want these things, but a lot of it you can't have. So you know, like, where do you go then? And what can you have? And how can that feed you just as much?

Lisa Woolfork 41:31

And that's the beauty of this offering. That is the beauty of your book as an offering. And I thank you for it.

Catherine McKinley 41:38

Thank you.

Lisa Woolfork 41:40

Thank you so much for speaking with me today, everybody. We have been talking with the ever-amazing Catherine McKinley of the McKinley collection and about her amazing book The African Lookbook. Please check this book out from independent retailers, and book lovers, and any place you go to buy books, but local is best. I've been learning local is best to keep the local economy of booksellers alive and well. And if you need some ideas about good independent booksellers, hit me up. I can definitely tell you something. But thank you again, Catherine. This was wonderful.

Catherine McKinley 42:15

Yes, I'll see. We're going to sit down and sew in Virginia.

Lisa Woolfork 42:20

She said that on tape, about first was the trip, and the second is sit and sew.

You've been listening to the Stitch Please podcast, the official podcast of Black Women Stitch, the sewing group where Black lives matter. We appreciate you supporting us by listening to the podcast. If you'd like to reach out to us with questions, you can contact us at If you'd like to support us financially, you can do that by supporting us on Patreon, and you can find Black Women Stitch there in the Patreon directory. And for as little as $2 a month you can help support the project with things like editing transcripts, and other things to strengthen the podcast. And finally, if financial support is not something you can do right now, you can really help the podcast by rating it and reviewing it anywhere you listen to podcasts that allows you to review them. So I know that not all podcast directories or services allow for reviews, but for those who do, for those that have a star rating, or just ask for a few comments, if you could share those comments and say nice things about us and the Stitch Please podcast, that is incredibly helpful. Thank you so much. Come back next week and we'll help you get your stitch together.

Hosted by Lisa Woolfork

Lisa is a fourth-generation sewing enthusiast who learned to sew while earning a PhD in African American literature and culture. She has been sewing for more than twenty years while also teaching, researching, and publishing in Black American literature and culture.

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