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Friday, September 20, 2019

Pioneering Women Photographers of Africa: Aylette Jenness

Aylette Jenness at her residence, Yelwa, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0123

“I am proud of this body of work, and feel that it represents a special woman’s point of view.  The area where I worked has been little studied or photographed, so I am particularly pleased that the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives [EEPA] has made its past visible.” [1]

-Aylette Jenness, writer/photographer

With this quote, Aylette Jenness communicates two themes that have guided her photography: her unique female perspective and a drive to educate others about diversity. With these ideas in mind, Jenness has produced a photographic legacy of intimate depictions of peoples from such varied places as Alaska and Africa. This worldview undoubtedly informed her photography taken between 1967 and 1969 of the Hausa, Yelwa, Sarkawa, and Kamberi peoples in northern Nigeria. Recently digitized, the EEPA is excited to share these photographs and feature Jenness as the next photographer in our Pioneering Women Photographers of Africa project.  

Hausa girl holding a fish and carrying straw on her head, Yelwa, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-1590
The EEPA holds 2,339 black and white negatives (35mm and 120mm) that Jenness took when she and her children, Kirik and Evan Aylette, accompanied her husband, Jonathan Jenness, during his anthropological study of peoples displaced by the building of the Kainji Dam. Because of this construction, thousands of people were removed from their ancestral villages and resettled in new communities. In addition, the civil war was raging in southeast Nigeria at the time, due to the attempted secession of Biafra. Photographing under these conditions, one would assume that Jenness’ images would depict turmoil and instability. Instead, she reveals the peace, dignity, perseverance and cooperation among the multiethnic societies in the Yelwa region.

Birds resting on a tree in the flooded Kainji Reservoir, Kainji Reservoir region, Nigeria, 1967-1969,
EEPA 2015-019-1166

Fisherman casting a net on the Kainji Lake, Kainji Reservoir region, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0505

Beyond her talent in photographing the productive, interwoven lives of these peoples, she has a particular interest in documenting women. Through depicting craftwork, caring for children, agricultural work, and other aspects of women’s daily life, Jenness illustrates women’s agency, independence, and unique societal contributions. Within the photographs, women are strong and the undeniable focus; they are not meek or irrelevant.  

Hausa woman spinning thread using a drop spindle,
near Yelwa, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-1166

Jenness believes that she was able to document women in Africa in an intimate way because she was a woman and mother herself. As she described, “As a woman, I was not perceived as threatening, or even nosy. My two little, blond, white-skinned kids were as interesting to the people I was photographing as the people were to me…” [2].  Jenness realized that this shared curiosity eliminated any sense of “otherness”; she understood that we are more alike than different. 

Women of Mallam Baba's household pounding grain, Yelwa, Nigeria, 1968,
EEPA 2015-019-0198

Jenness’ appreciation and respect for various ethnic and cultural groups has continued to guide her work. During her twenty-four-year career at the Boston Children’s Museum, where she worked on developing exhibitions and programs, Jenness helped run the Museum’s “Ethnic Discovery Project,” in which sought to increase diversity within the museum, including through collaborations with not just museum professionals, but with professionals of diverse ethnic heritage. [3] 

She is also dedicated to educating others about the importance of women. Jenness’ photographs encourage reflection on what is and should be possible for women in today’s society. In a positive review of her most recent exhibit, Fifty Years Ago: A Celebration of Women and Girls of the Rural North (2019), Howard Karren notes:   

Fifty years later, at a time when we seem to have learned little about the horrors of tribal hatred and violence, even in the West, Jenness’ photographs of women and girls in rural Nigeria are a profound revelation, and a lovely expression of hope. [4]
We look forward to the continued recognition and use of Jenness’ photographs, knowing that their relevancy and perceptiveness will continue to resonate indefinitely.    

Hausa woman sitting outside with her children, Yelwa, Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0914

We hope that you enjoy Jenness’ photographs as more are posted online. Be sure to check out the finding aid for more details. You can also find Jenness’ Nigerian photographs on her website and in her book for young readers, Along the Niger River: An African Way of Life (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Co., 1974).

Hausa girls gathered to watch a harvest celebration dance performance,
Nigeria, 1967-1969, EEPA 2015-019-0292

The EEPA is open for researchers by appointment only, Tuesday-Thursday, 10-4. Please see the EEPA website for contact information.

1. Aylette Jenness, interview with Eden Orelove, via email, April 15, 2019.
2. ibid
3. Patricia A. Steuert with Aylette Jenness and Joanne Jones-Rizzi, Opening the Museum: History and Strategies Toward a More Inclusive Institution, Boston: The Children’s Museum, 1993, p. 61.  
4. Howard Karren, “Aylette Jenness’ Everlasting Vision, at the Wellfleet COA in April”, Provincetown Banner August 2019).

Eden Orelove
Photo Archivist
Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives
National Museum of African Art

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