- Dress Politics and Framing Self in GhanaThe Studio Photographs of Felicia Abban
In June 2014, as part of a project on West African wax-print, I met Felicia Ansah Abban, who is widely viewed as Ghana’s first woman professional photographer. The initial subject of conversation was Robert Abban, Felicia’s deceased husband who designed the commemorative cloth that featured Dr. Kwame Nkrumah’s portrait for the independence celebrations in 1957, but the conversation quickly turned to the framed portraits and news features on the family room walls of Abban’s Accra home. Dated from the late 1950s onward, news clippings tout Felicia Abban as Ghana’s “first female professional photographer” and several photographers cite Felicia Abban as the first Ghanaian woman photographer and owner of an Accra studio.1 Abban was the first president’s private photographer for several years during the 1960s and Nkrumah was “one of the many high-profile clients” she photographed during the early days of independence.
When I met with Abban over the next two years to learn more about her life history, she always called two of her sexagenarian daughters to bring out fragile photographs to accompany her stories about her sixty-year-long career. Worsening arthritis forced Abban into retirement three years ago, but the self-proclaimed “forever photographer” relishes in affectionate conversations about her scattered photo albums. The private collection consists mostly of studio photographs from the 1950s to 1970s, when Abban regularly produced self-portraits before she attended dinner parties and political events. Answering why she went out of her way to make self-portraits before going to town, Abban held out a photograph where she is dressed in a luxurious wax-print with golden thread and exclaimed, “Because I looked good and it was good for business!” (Fig. 1). Abban went on to describe the collection of self-portraits as evidentiary “calling cards” crafted around her own musings about the early independence period, with clothing as the central expression of her identity. Akin to a gallery of selfies stored in a cellphone, the photographs freeze the ebullient idealism of independence through the eyes of the woman photographer. In many of the photographs, Abban’s attire typifies the stylistic touchstones of the ‘60s, with perfectly coiffed wigs and dresses with billowed sleeves. Others photographs harken to a 1950s debutante iconography, replete with pearl necklaces, floral hat and lace gloves, while she leans her right arm over an elegant piece of classic Ghanaian kente cloth (Figs. 2–3). What is consistent throughout these diverse photographs is the way in which Abban uses clothing to visibly articulate a feminine identity that plays with the traditional and contemporary in an artful hybridity that is urbane and trans-Atlantic (Fig. 3). The collection posits Abban within transnational publics and as part of an exhilarating period where fashioning identity was a cultural imperative.
It is frequently the case that when aged African photographs circulate, whether on social media or at an art exhibit, the photographer or the subjects’ identities are unknown. As a professional photographer who worked before, during, and after Ghanaian independence, Abban’s self-portraits are an opportunity to engage intent and subject-making by photographers, particularly the way self-portraits are gendered embodiments of modernity through dress politics (Behrend 2002). Tobias Wendl (2001) examines the aesthetics of Ghanaian photography related to posing, stature, and the intentionality of creating memory made by the choices of clothing in photography portraiture. Wendl’s inquiry pays particular attention to the ways in which portraits become “visualized speech” inscribed with classifications of ethnicity, class, and gender where dress “reinforces and illustrates social integration” (Wendl 2001:85). With limited knowledge about the lives of African women as photographic producers,2 Abban’s collection warrants closer consideration. [End Page 48]
Ghanaian media venerates Abban’s protracted career, but to date academic scholarship has not considered Abban as...