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Portraits of Change

BU Art Gallery exhibition shows early postcards from Africa


Click on the slide show above to see images from the BUAG exhibition Exposures. Gallery photos by Marie Cornuelle.

Remember getting dressed up, primping in the mirror, and having your photo taken for your high school yearbook? Now imagine that decades later, that photo is plastered on postcards all over the world with the caption “American Teenager.” That was the experience of hundreds of Africans from the 1890s until the 1930s, when studio portraits were used for postcards throughout Europe and America and kept as souvenirs.

“It’s interesting that a personal memento often was turned into a postcard,” says Cynthia Becker, an assistant professor of art history in the College of Arts and Sciences. “Think of going to a studio to have your portrait taken, being put on a postcard labeled ‘the typical American,’ and commercialized.”

In the Boston University Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, Exposures: Other Histories in Early Postcards from Africa, curators Becker and Christraud Geary, the Teel Curator of African and Oceanic Art at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, examined the medium to see what the images revealed about history, gender, race, and colonialism. The portraits, and their creators, subtly document political and social changes across the continent, with subjects ranging from banished African rulers to Algerian prostitutes who later reformed after amassing huge dowries.

“One misleading idea is that all of the postcards made were exotic or erotic in content,” says Geary. “But that’s not the case — the majority showed mundane activities or props, possibly seen as ‘mimicking’ European fashions.”

The use of posed studio photographs continues today throughout much of Africa, he says. “Africans took to photography early on — many of these images show them at their proudest, in their finest clothes. To this day, it’s typical to be posed, reflecting African aesthetics, but also the delight of the studio element.”

Exposures: Other Histories in Early Postcards from Africa is on display at the Boston University Art Gallery through January 18, 2009. The gallery, at the Faye G., Jo and James Stone Gallery at the College of Fine Arts, 855 Commonwealth Ave., is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 1 to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For more information, call 617-353-3329 during regular business hours. All events are free and open to the public.

Kimberly Cornuelle can be reached at kcornuel@bu.edu.

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2 Comments on Portraits of Change

  • Anonymous on 12.11.2008 at 10:05 am

    African postcards

    While I’d like to say that I was disturbed by stereotypical images of Africans in this show, (which I know was some of the point), I have to say, the elegance of the subjects is beautiful.

  • Anonymous on 12.11.2008 at 10:31 am


    interesting exhibit. thanks for the info.

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