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Subjects and Subjugation: Swahili Coast Studio Photography in Global Circulation

By the 1850s, commercial photography studios could be found all across the globe, with people in disparate locations holding similar standing poses in front of standardized backdrops. In this essay, Prita Meier addresses different manifestations of early photography in eastern Africa, including how to critically approach the subjects pictured in colonial photographs that were created for international consumption but also acknowledging how this novel technology found a place within the distinct mercantile and material cultural histories of the Swahili Coast.

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Prita meier 2

Prita Meier

Associate Professor of Art History New York University Prita Meier (Ph.D., Harvard University) is a tenured Associate Professor of Africanist art history in the Department of Art History and Institute of Fine Arts. Her... Read more »
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Subjects and Subjugation: Swahili Coast Studio Photography in Global Circulation

By the 1850s, commercial photography studios could be found all across the globe, with people in disparate locations holding similar standing poses in front of standardized backdrops. In this essay, Prita Meier addresses different manifestations of early photography in eastern Africa, including how to critically approach the subjects pictured in colonial photographs that were created for international consumption but also acknowledging how this novel technology found a place within the distinct mercantile and material cultural histories of the Swahili Coast.

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By the 1850s, commercial photography studios could be found all across the globe, with people in disparate locations holding similar standing poses in front of standardized backdrops. In this essay, Prita Meier addresses different manifestations of early photography in eastern Africa, including how to critically approach the subjects pictured in colonial photographs that were created for international consumption but also acknowledging how this novel technology found a place within the distinct mercantile and material cultural histories of the Swahili Coast.

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Fig. 1. Souza and Paul Studio, Zanzibar. Man sitting in a room in a mansion in Stone Town, Zanzibar (present-day Tanzania), circa 1890. Silver gelatin print. Private collection (artwork in the public domain; photograph provided by Prita Meier).

The proliferation of diverse photographic practices across the world soon after the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 is by now well-known. For example, Deborah Poole’s pioneering work on the early history of photography has shown that the movement of photography between Europe, North America, and Latin America constituted the making of a transcultural visual economy, one that was very much about deploying the “truthful” optics of the camera to justify discrimination and imperialism.1 Photographed people became visual data in the making of modern scopic regimes of difference. For example, photography made race a visible “fact,” and slaving societies, such as the United States, used photographic representation to legitimize slavery and later segregation. But photography also engendered unforeseen horizons of visibility and agency. Portrait photography as an expressive force of modernity was embraced by many. By the 1850s, commercial photography studios could be found all across the globe, including in Buenos Aires, New York, Shanghai, Cairo, Bombay, and Accra. It is striking that in all of these cities, many separated by two oceans people posed for similar portraits, often holding identical standing poses in front of standardized backdrops. Yet rather than being peripheral simulations of the European experience, these pictures are representative of a complex web of connected, yet different image worlds.

However, what is much less known is that eastern Africa, especially the Swahili Coast, was also a fulcrum of the consumption and production of photography. Here photographs did not connect to local practices of picture-making, as in Asia, West Africa, and the Middle East. In fact, Swahili Coast culture was generally aniconic before the nineteenth century (although sculptors did create low-relief semiabstract zoomorphic carvings in architectural settings). This suggests that not all histories of photography are about pictorial illusionism and the mimetic capacities of photography. Rather, photography’s role as a thing in the world, as matter and materiality, played a significant role.2

The Swahili Coast of eastern Africa is one of the most fluid nodes of the Global South, where people, ideas, and materials from all over the world converge and intermingle. A Muslim cultural complex, its ports have acted as intersections of vastly different social and economic systems for more than a millennium. The region has long connected the African heartland to places across the Indian Ocean, especially to the coastal regions of South Asia and the Middle East. As a result, local people are masters of the in-between, easily negotiating between different worldviews and cultural traditions. The second half of the nineteenth century marks a watershed moment in a long history of transcontinental connectivity. The North Atlantic world, including would-be colonizers and capitalists, increasingly focused on controlling the trade and resources of Africa and the Indian Ocean world. When Zanzibar became the seat of the British-backed Busaidi Sultanate of Oman in 1837, the entire region became the center of competing imperial projects. While its main port towns, such as Zanzibar and Mombasa, have always been vanguard places, during this time, new technologies and infrastructures of movement, communication, and mass media rapidly accelerated transcontinental exchange, contracting space and time with unprecedented intensity.

By the 1870s, photography, one of industrial modernity’s most revolutionary mediums, was essential to local aesthetic practice. The first photographs likely arrived in markets of the region’s port towns from Bombay and other South Asian and Middle Eastern trading centers, although Zanzibaris had already been photographed in 1846, when a visiting French naval officer created a series of anthropological daguerreotype plates. Initially, locals did not have access to original photographs but rather to mass-produced picture postcards, or cartes de visite, and chromolithographs. Photographs were printed onto card stocks and paper using various photomechanical processes. By the 1900s, such small-format cards were circulating in the millions across the Indian Ocean and along the caravan routes of eastern Africa. As elsewhere in the world, photography was about both oppression and liberation in myriad ways.

While some locals had the ability to commission their own portrait photographs, many more could buy photographs of strangers, along with other cheap commodities, which were flooding the local markets at this time. Small, mobile, and easily amassed and collected, these pictures connected to older traditions of displaying transoceanic commodities in one’s home. For local consumers, photographs were tantalizingly exotic, endowed with a foreign materiality that made them perfect artifacts for display and pleasure.

By the 1870s, commercial photography studios also proliferated, serving a diverse clientele. At first, local photographers primarily catered to European immigrants, colonial officials, and Omani Arabs, but by the turn of the twentieth century, mainland Africans, Swahilis, and South Asians all frequented them to have portraits made or to buy images of others. Goans, who were Christians and Portuguese subjects, opened the first commercial photography houses in Zanzibar and Mombasa. Although it is often assumed that they came directly from present-day India to the Swahili Coast, many had been living in other ports of the western Indian Ocean. For example, A. C. Gomes first opened a studio in Aden (in present-day Yemen) in 1869, where he also served as a photographer to the British government. He and his family migrated to Zanzibar sometime in the 1870s, when British interests in the Indian Ocean region shifted from the coastal towns of the Arabian Peninsula to the Swahili Coast. In fact, Goan photographers also sold affordable imports, including textiles, household wares, and fashionable items of adornment, such as jewelry and perfumes. They were key agents and purveyors of the commodity culture of the Indian Ocean.

During their early history, studio photographs functioned as portraits and also as objects of good taste. In fact, the ruling elite and wealthy merchants often displayed framed studio portraits of their family members in carefully curated domestic spaces. The photograph in figure 1, for example, shows an interior view of a multiuse room in a large mansion in Stone Town. The room is filled with European glass chandeliers, Middle Eastern carpets, Goan furniture, export-ware porcelain, and German factory-made chairs. Studio portraits are also central to the room’s decorative program. Three large, mounted, and framed portraits of men in Omani dress are set on the ornate Indo-Portuguese cabinet in the right foreground of the image, and another occupies the small nightstand next to the bed. Versions of this photograph exist in many archives across the world, and it was published in a British book in the 1890s, where the byline noted, “The conflict between Oriental and Western civilization is clearly discernable in the decorations of the chamber.”3 Yet this layering of diverse cultural strands in Zanzibari homes did not represent a conflict to locals. The young man sitting in the center of the room, his name no longer known, exudes confidence and authority. His body language is relaxed as he leans against the curve of the chair’s back, extending his legs slightly before him. The carefully arranged collection of prized furnishings and objects d’art reflects his globally inflected aesthetic sensibility. Here photographs, although certainly portraits of family members, also worked in tandem with the collected items that filled this room, to create a layered space of exotica.

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Fig. 2. Parekh Studio, Mombasa. Unidentified man, 1966. Black-and-white studio photograph. Courtesy of Heike Behrend. Private collection (artwork in the public domain; photograph provided by Prita Meier).

For more than one hundred years, until around the 1990s, locals avidly posed for (fig. 2), collected, and created elaborately staged studio portraits of themselves and others for an array of reasons. The great majority of studio photographs from Africa still in circulation today, especially those in European and North American private and public collections, are the historical picture postcards that fall in the “native studies” category (figs. 3-10).4 The postcards themselves are very much part of the leisure and collecting culture of Europeans and North American audiences; although, most feature photographs taken by the most successful commercial photographers of the Swahili Coast, including A. C. Gomes, Pereira de Lord, and J. P. Fernandes. They simply sent their photographs to Europe, where they were reprinted as picture postcards, which were then shipped back to eastern Africa to be sold to visitors, who in turn sent them back to Europe and other places overseas. As postcards, local photographs circulated across oceans with unprecedented ease. With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, a regular schedule of steamships connected the main ports of the Indian Ocean with those of Europe, including Hamburg, London, and Marseilles. Interestingly, before the 1890s, the majority of Swahili Coast commercial studios worked with German postcard printing houses, especially those located in Hamburg.5

Studio prints and postcards depicting local people wearing elaborate costumes and holding contrived poses were especially popular during the colonial period, when the coast was part of the British protectorate (1890–1963). Many show local young women, because they evoke a much-loved phantasm of exotic feminine sensuality. The women’s bodies and clothes are sometimes hand colored in luscious hues (figs. 4, 5, 7-9), endowing them with a compelling realism. Clearly, many compositions met the desires of North Atlantic audiences, although scholars and oral histories suggest that postcards also featured photographs that locals had commissioned of themselves; it seems that commercial studios had portraits reprinted as postcards, likely without the permission or knowledge of the sitters. We cannot be sure which photographs were once personal mementos because locals also sometimes posed and dressed in ways that played with North Atlantic photographic tropes. In fact, through photography, diverse clients mixed Swahili aesthetics of self-display, local rules of public propriety, colonial categories of race and identity, and modern notions of the individual.

Although today we have access to thousands of picture postcards in both private and public archives, the lives of those photographed remain largely opaque. We also can only guess about the kinds of negotiations that took place between photographer and photographed.6 The majority of postcards, especially the nameless “native type” postcards, show poor people and young women, who were likely hired or forced to perform in front of the camera. Especially the most Orientalizing and seductive compositions (fig. 6) are part of a long history of transforming people into pretty pictures and delectable objects. Today we like to imagine that the sitters in these photographs had some agency in their self-presentation. We see something confident and powerful in these women (especially figs. 4 and 5), believing that they are somehow subverting the oppressive force of the colonial and male gaze defining them. Because of the mimetic realism of photography, we interpret gazes, postures, and gestures as intimating a trace of a sitter’s inner and intimate life. In fact, in many cases, the people who could choose to remain invisible had a great deal more autonomy than those pictured in such postcards. This does not mean the pictured women do not require our serious consideration. They lived complex lives and struggled for self-determination in ways that these photographs can never reveal. Yet, paradoxically, they are also often all that remains of their historical selves, and as such, archival traces of their lived experience. Reading such postcards against the grain of objectification is an important project.

Tourists who bought and sent picture postcards likely did not consider the sitters’ subjectivities or life worlds, but rather saw them as souvenirs, or nameless bodies. As postcards, they are comfortably distant and purely ornamental. The desire for pleasing ornament was why many postcards featured theatrical arrangements of women’s bodies, which were transformed into striking arrangements (figs. 9 and 10). The captions never provide the names of the subjects, but instead a more generic description, such as “Swahili Beauties” (fig.10), for example. Some reference to “beauty” is printed on many postcards (fig. 8). The subject’s individuality is subsumed by their perceived visual attractiveness; each person is transformed into a pleasurable component of a composition. These postcards are in many ways exemplary of the violence of photography, pandering to the voyeuristic desire of viewers for possession of and power over others.

Many of these women, and also young men, were vulnerable to other forms of violence, including economic, bodily, and sexual violence. These photographs perhaps do not overtly suggest extreme subjugation, but without a doubt, many of the sitters were touched by the violence of slavery. It was a local tradition for retinues of bonded or enslaved women, wearing elaborate costumes, to perform pleasing dances in public. Their dress and jewelry spoke of the wealth and good taste of their enslavers. They often wore matching turbans, body skimming caftans, and tight pants, as seen in figure 10. There existed even a specific category of enslaved women, wapambe, which means “the ornamented ones,” whose primary role was to beautify parades and festivals. Also, as historical recent research has shown, enslavement and its many legacies shaped daily life in myriad ways for decades after the Abolition Decree of 1897.7 Abolition was especially ambiguous for women. For instance, the decree officially offered freedom to all, except women categorized as concubines. In fact, many powerful locals declared all enslaved women in their house to be concubines to forestall their manumission.

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Fig. 10. A. C. Gomes et Co. Photographers, Zanzibar. Swahily Beauties of Zanzibar (present-day Tanzania), before 1900. Collotype on postcard stock, 5 1⁄2 x 3 1⁄2 in. (14 x 9 cm). Collection of Christraud M. Geary (artwork in the public domain; photograph provided by Christraud M. Geary).

These postcards therefore hint at the continuation of extreme injustices and hardships, even as the sitters’ smiles and delightful poses suggest play and fun. They very much reveal something about local histories and legacies of violence and are not just about the predations of colonialist photography. They certainly continue to reverberate in Zanzibar today because painful questions about who enslaved whom still shape local interpretations of the nineteenth century.8

Clearly these postcards are complicated objects. They are not simply about the North Atlantic taste for exotic bodies, although that is their most obvious role. They are also composites—“local,” “Western,” and “colonial” —all at once. The camera turned living people into mediated effigies, objects that adopted the shape of human beings, that in turn could be shipped across oceans in mobile postcard form. But they also hold onto real lives and specific histories, histories that suggest individual experiences of dehumanization—not just photographic violence.

1.

Deborah Poole, Vision, Race, and Modernity: A Visual Economy of the Andean Image World (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997).

2.

For more on Swahili Coast photography as material object and ornament, see Prita Meier, “The Surface of Things: A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast,” Art Bulletin 101, no. 1 (March 2019): 48–69. On the nonrepresentational qualities of other forms of vernacular photography, see Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, Photographs Objects Histories: On the Materiality of Images (London: Routledge, 2004); Elizabeth Edwards, “Material Beings: The Objecthood of Ethnographic Photographs,” Visual Studies 17, no.1 (April 2002): 69–75; Tina Campt, Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012); and Christopher Pinney, “Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Postcolonialism, and Vernacular Modernism,” in Photography’s Other Histories, eds. Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003).

3.

Meier, Swahili Port Cities, page 208

4.

The pioneering scholarship of Christraud Geary has revolutionized our understanding of early photography in Africa. Her landmark publications include Christraud M. Geary, In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa, 1885–1960, exh. cat. (London: Philip Wilson; Washington, DC: Smithsonian, National Museum of African Art, 2002); Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998); and Christraud M. Geary, Postcards from Africa: Photographers of the Colonial Era: Selections from the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive (Boston: MFA Publications, 2018).

5.

P. C. Evans, The Early Postcards of Zanzibar (London: East Africa Study Circle, 2005), 2 and 42.

6.

This is only the case in terms of early photography. Locals certainly do have many memories of the politics of studio sessions from the 1950s onward.

7.

Frederick Cooper, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925 (New Haven: Yale University Press); Laura Fair, Pastimes and Politics Culture, Community, and Identity in Post-Abolition Urban Zanzibar, 1890–1945 (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2001); Frederick Cooper, From Slaves to Squatters: Plantation Labor and Agriculture in Zanzibar and Coastal Kenya, 1890-1925 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980).

8.

European cash-crop plantations located on Indian Ocean islands that depended on the labor of enslaved Africans set the stage for the introduction of plantation slavery on Zanzibar Island in the early nineteenth century. Large commercial plantations, producing cash crops, such as cloves, for the North Atlantic world, were established by the Omani elite. Although various forms of bondage have existed before, the unprecedented cruelty of modern chattel slavery forever changed the social landscape of the Swahili Coast. To this day, this history has left deep scars, and questions of who was ultimately responsible for the rise of such extreme injustice and violence still impact contemporary relationships between various groups living in eastern Africa. For analyses of the history of slavery in eastern Africa, see Edward Alpers, Ivory and Slaves: Changing Pattern of International Trade in East Central Africa to the Later Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Gwyn Campbell, The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia (London: Frank Cass, 2004); Frederick Cooper, On the African Waterfront: Urban Disorder and the Transformation of Work in Colonial Mombasa (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1987).

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