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Miss D’vine II, from the series Miss D’vine, 2007, chromogenic print.

Zanele Muholi/Courtesy of the artist and Stevenson, Cape Town and Johannesburg

Art institutions exist to bring issues to the forefront of cultural dialogue, to help shed layers of preconception and ignite a new way of thinking. The knockout show at the Ryerson Image Centre this fall, does precisely that – by flipping the narrative of African portraiture on its head.

The history of photography is littered with images of reclining nudes intended for male audiences, but guest curator Sandrine Colard carefully pored over the Walther Collection (Neu-Ulm, Germany and New York), an archive widely recognized as one of the most comprehensive collections of Africa-based photography and lens-based art in the world. And she chose a different perspective, one that favours the female point of view and breaks from the male gaze. Colard has assembled a collection whose subjects aren’t treated just as objects. Instead, each woman is actively engaged in how their image was captured – evident in their pride of stance and direct eye contact. In this version of history, these women have agency.

The exhibition is broken into three chronological parts. One is dedicated to the 19th-century tradition of images created for a privileged class of European travellers, who collected so-called cartes de visites – books, albums and postcards that were prized exotic curios from abroad to show off at home. The second part, which includes notable prints by famed shooters such as Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita, takes us through a time of social and political upheaval, as many country across Africa struggled for independence. The women of this era ­– when portrait studios sprang up across the continent to document the fantastic fashions and hairstyles – show an increased sense of freedom and independence. The last chapter starts in the 1990s and continues through the present, highlighting the rise of female-identifying photographers now occupying the seat of power – behind the lens.

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The exhibition runs through Dec. 8.

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