Senegal has fascinated Bud Dorsey ever since his childhood. He used to listen to his father telling stories about training armed forces in the country in Western Africa to confront German soldiers during the Second World War.
Given his background, it comes as no surprise that the renowned photographer from Louisville visited Senegal as soon as such an opportunity arose. Namely, he was given an artist’s grant.
Dorsey has spent the major part of his career capturing the West End life for Jet Magazine, the Courier Journal, and the Louisville Defender. He received a Great Meadows grant in autumn of 2018 and traveled to Senegal to visit African galleries and associate with other artists.
As one might expect, Dorsey carried his camera everywhere he went, prepared to capture anything that caught his eye. Senegalese women proved to be such a sight. Dorsey observed their day-long labor and photographed them with materials that weigh 50 pounds on their heads while carrying their infant children on their backs.
Dorsey commented on his work by stating that he took photos of everything that was in motion, which primarily included those women.
Dorsey’s photographs are currently on display at the Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, located in West Muhammad Ali Boulevard. Dorsey associated with Aukram Burton, the executive director of the center, whom he met years ago at a Louisville Photo Biennial. The two photographers agreed to combine photographs from the individual archive of each of them and establish a gallery to honor the West African women.
“Women Hold up Half the Sky” presents photographs from Dorsey’s trip to Senegal as well as the ones Burton took on his numerous trips to Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal, which date all the way back to 1979.
The majority of Burton’s photographs were taken and developed decades ago. However, in the exhibit, there is no apparent time difference between Dorsey’s images and those photographs captured in the 1970s. The former were taken last year, but they prove that the situation had not changed over three decades. Both sets of images present women in less economically developed countries wearing dated clothes and engaging in intense work while being surrounded by several children.
Burton states that every time he visits Africa, he witnesses women in extreme working conditions. He claims that they are not only the basis of the family but of the community and nation as well. He cites that as the reason behind his and Dorsey’s decision to put photographs of women they had taken over the years on display.
The idea is that the exhibition, which will last through March 2020, Women’s History Month, honors women who lead extraordinary lives, having equally significant, but unacknowledged roles as men, who happen to be leaders in such communities.
According to Burton, over half of the African population are women. Not only are they more numerous, but they also provide 90% of the food for the entire continent. Since they are businesswomen, one-third of all businesses on the African continent belongs to them. Moreover, in West African homes, similarly to the majority of places around the world, women represent the link that supports the society as well as family.
Chinese leader Mao Zedong made a proclamation “Women hold up half the sky” to promote women as a professional economic resource outside of the confines of home.
As stated by Burton, a fundamental change has to be made around the world in the context of the conversation about roles assumed by women and women themselves. In his opinion, they are the carriers of culture.
It is not uncommon for Dorsey to capture powerful and beautiful black women on photo. He regularly proposed his photographs to Jet Magazine in order to have them published in the magazine’s centerfold feature entitled “Beauty of the Week,” starting in the 1970s.
Out of all the photographs he captured last year during his stay in Senegal, Dorsey prefers a close-up image of an elderly Senegalese woman aged 106. Dorsey was aware of the difficulties involved in the task of photographing women in Senegal since religion and tradition commonly make women from West Africa nervous around cameras. However, his girlfriend, LaCreis Kidd, who accompanied him on his trip, managed to help him make his subjects feel relaxed. Kidd works as an associate professor at the University of Louisville, specializing in cancer research.
According to Kidd, she felt a bond with Senegalese women by recalling the image of hard-working African American mothers from Louisville.
As stated by her, Louisville is home to many fascinating women who manage full-time jobs and care for their families, which sometimes includes elderly parents or adult children, and on top of that, run nonprofits or businesses.
Senegalese women brought Renee Campbell to Kidd’s mind. Campbell is a woman of Louisville who works as an associate professor at the University of Louisville while also being a member and the founder of the Louisville Clothesline Project, a program assisting women in the process of communicating abuse they have encountered. Moreover, Campbell is involved in social justice projects in another Western African country, Ghana.
Kidd also mentions Stacy Bailey-Njaiye, the executive director of the local nonprofit Bridge Kids International, whose purpose is supporting communities in Louisville by way of teaching African culture and heritage.
According to Burton, the reason behind the establishment of the photo gallery is getting involved with African heritage.
As stated by him, the idea is to get people to see the endurance and beauty of African women and realize that women hold up half the sky, even more than that in some cases. He says that recognizing that is going to require the attention of men.
In the middle of the 400th anniversary of the period the first enslaved Africans reached the American continents, and as projects such as “1619: Searching for answers” by USA TODAY are published, the exhibit represents another step in displaying an authentic and positive account of African people and their descendants, according to Burton. As stated by him, black children in Louisville ought to witness that progress.
Burton says that the camera represents their weapon of choice, the one they took advantage of to contradict the negative image black people have had throughout history. He concludes by saying that their most significant contribution is reflected in reconnecting the American community to their African roots by way of displaying the life of an African community.
Dorsey wishes he were able to return to Senegal and capture the lives of women working at Lake Retba — the so-called “Pink Lake.”
Dorsey explains the routine of those women by saying that they work all day long in hazardous conditions, heaving salt out of the lake which more often than not opens wounds on their bodies. Dorsey continues and says that the children often accompany their mothers and sit by the lake, where the women need to care for them in addition to doing their daily work. According to Dorsey, every bucket they haul from the water weighs no less than 60 pounds, and the weight goes up to 90 pounds a bucket. On top of all that, women get six cents per bucket from the big companies.
Provided that he managed to get funding, Dorsey would entitle the projects featuring women at Lake Retba “The Women of Salt.”
“Women Hold up Half the Sky”
Subject: A photographic exhibition assembled by Bud Dorsey and Aukram Burton, presenting West African women from Ghana, Nigeria, and Senegal.
Location: Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, 1701 West Muhammad Ali Boulevard.
Duration: The exhibition is open and lasts through March 20, 2020.
Cost: The entrance is free of charge.
If you are interested in the exhibition and want to know more, you can visit kcaah.org/women-of-west-africa for all additional information.