The photos are mostly of women, decked in elaborate clothing and jewelry, wearing serious or playful or romantic expressions. Many of the images have been colorized — hand-painted to bring ruby lips, golden pendants, emerald chairs to life.
These portraits were captured in photography studios throughout Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia from the 1890s to the 1920s. The images offer glimpses into the subjects’ lives — and have an unusual history. Unbeknownst to the subjects, photographers often turned the negatives from private shoots into postcards for Westerners to sell or send back home as mementos from their East African trips.
Now, these historic postcards are being viewed once more as part of a new exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean showcases 230 objects from museums and private collections on four continents, displaying art and history from the region known as the Swahili coast in East Africa. The exhibition runs until September 3.
Prita Meier, the co-curator, chose these postcards because “they show the compelling and amazing ways” that people living on the Swahili coast quickly embraced photography, especially portraits, and made the art their own. Meier is the author of a forthcoming book about photography on the Swahili coast from the 1870s to the 1970s and is an assistant professor of art history at New York University.
Not long after photography was introduced to East Africa in the 1860s, studios sprouted up in cities like Mombasa, in what is now Kenya, and Zanzibar’s Old Town, she explains. Soon people from all walks of life began sitting for portraits taken by local photographers in small studios.
These portraits depict people in a variety of fascinating poses: “Looking at the camera [in] sometimes playful, sometimes seductive, sometimes serious ways,” says Meier. Most subjects dressed in their best outfits, but others took the opportunity to slip into other lives and identities — masquerading as a Victorian lady, a movie star, a woman in a Middle Eastern harem.
“That completely goes against our general understanding about how Africans used photography,” Meier says. “This idea that they were always very serious and thought they were expressing some essential sense of their identity.”
Between about 1890 and 1920, when the photos for the postcards in this exhibition were taken, sitting for portraits had become a popular, inexpensive pastime. It was a fun way to spend time with friends and family — kind of like those photo booths at the mall or the old-timey dress-up studios in beach towns.
“It became this space where you could present yourself as a powerful, autonomous, cosmopolitan, sophisticated, fabulous human being,” Meier says.
The photos also show the diversity of people on the Swahili coast, Meier says. The region was home to Arabs, South Asians, Europeans and Americans. “People have been migrating and moving for centuries.”
The postcards themselves have a “problematic” history, Meier says. They were produced specifically for European and North American audiences — without the knowledge of the subjects.
“Can you imagine a private family photograph being turned into a tourist souvenir?” Meier asks.
In addition to using family photos, the studios would stage shots with paid models.
The photographer would then order thousands of postcards to be made in Europe from a negative; the postcards would be sold throughout the West and also be sent back to coastal towns in Africa, where they were marketed to Western tourists. who would mail the cards back home.
“So it would go back and forth several times,” Meier says.
This cultural exchange is found, too, in the poses the people in the portraits strike. Trade across the Indian and Atlantic Oceans brought everything from clothes to music to magazines to, eventually, movies from the West to Africa, and vice versa, says Meier.
“There was a connectedness and a familiarity with the rest of the world,” she says. “And that was also lighthearted and playful.”
Colorized postcards, made by hand-painting black-and-white images, were also popular. Meier says the technique was used to make the subjects look more alive — “more like a real person.”
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.
Melody Schreiber (@m_scribe on Twitter) is a freelance journalist in Washington, D.C.