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Unveiling East African Elegance: Rediscovering Historic Swahili Coast Portraits

Posted by Walter Gido on

Unveiling East African Elegance: Rediscovering Historic Swahili Coast Portraits
The vintage Swahili Postcards collection predominantly features photographs of women adorned in extravagant attire and jewelry, their expressions ranging from serious to playful or romantic. Many of these images have been skillfully colorized, with meticulous hand-painting bringing vivid life to ruby lips, golden pendants, and emerald chairs.
Taken between the 1890s and 1920s, these captivating portraits were captured in photography studios spread across Kenya, Tanzania, and Somalia. Providing glimpses into the lives of the subjects, these images possess an extraordinary history. Unbeknownst to the individuals depicted, photographers often repurposed the negatives from private sessions and transformed them into postcards, marketed to Westerners as mementos from their East African travels.
Today, these historical postcards are once again being showcased as part of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., titled "World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean." This exhibition presents 160 objects sourced from museums and private collections across four continents, highlighting the art and history of the Swahili coast in East Africa.
Running until September 3, the exhibition was curated by Prita Meier, who carefully selected these postcards for their ability to demonstrate the captivating and remarkable ways in which the people residing along the Swahili coast wholeheartedly embraced photography, particularly in the form of portraits, and made it an integral part of their artistic expression. Meier, an assistant professor of art history at New York University, is also the author of an upcoming book focused on photography along the Swahili coast from the 1870s to the 1970s.
According to Meier, the advent of photography in East Africa in the 1860s quickly led to the establishment of studios in cities such as Mombasa (now in Kenya) and Zanzibar's Old Town. Soon, individuals from diverse backgrounds flocked to these studios to have their portraits taken by local photographers in intimate settings.
These portraits encompass a captivating array of poses, as Meier explains, with subjects engaging with the camera in playful, seductive, or serious manners. Most individuals donned their finest attire for these photographs, while others embraced the opportunity to adopt alternative personas and identities, masquerading as Victorian ladies, movie stars, or women in Middle Eastern harems.
Meier challenges the prevailing notion that African photography was always serious and solely aimed at expressing an essential aspect of identity. She remarks, "That completely goes against our general understanding about how Africans used photography." During the period encompassing the exhibition's postcard photographs (1890-1920), portrait sittings had become a popular and affordable pastime. It offered a delightful way to spend time with friends and family, akin to the photo booths found in malls or the vintage dress-up studios found in seaside towns. "It became this space where you could present yourself as a powerful, autonomous, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, fabulous human being," adds Meier.
Furthermore, these photographs beautifully showcase the diverse population residing along the Swahili coast. The region was home to Arabs, South Asians, Europeans, and Americans, each group having a long history of migration and movement.Some of the best-selling postcards featured beautiful women. "People loved this idea that they could somehow have access to these exotic people. Especially exotic women," she says.
"Postcards were also meant to fulfill European fantasies about Swahili women," Meier says. "They wanted a sexualized, sensual image of Africa."
Such stereotypes, she says, were "wholly European," but the local photographers responded, sometimes paying women to stretch out in suggestive poses.
In fact, says Meier, the majority of historical postcards and photographs about the Swahili coast that are available in Western museums and archives today are sexualized images of women.The images reinforced the negative stereotypes held by Westerners about African women and added to generations of exploitation of these women, she notes.
Yet Meier points out that many of the women who commissioned portraits of themselves in more risqué or scandalous poses saw the photos as a chance to rebel, just a little, against tradition and the expectations their families had for them."For the sitter, it was a beautiful, playful or even humorous portrait," she says. "And today, when people from Mombasa or Zanzibar look at these images, they focus on the beauty and elegance and see the photographs as historical documents."
Many postcards feature clothes with elaborate patterns that might seem to be traditional to East Africa but were actually produced in European and North American factories.The images of women in these outfits "tell us about the history of photography in a seemingly faraway place, like the coast of Africa," she says. "But they also tell us a story about women's fashion" and how women and others on the Swahili coast enjoyed and remixed other traditions.
Those living along the Swahili coast were not merely passive consumers of Western culture. They made it their own, and in turn influenced Western culture, too.

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