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253 7. Mombasa on Display: Photography and the Formation of an Urban Public, from the 1940s Onward I S O L D E B R I E L M A I E R For many people, the city and the studio were important places for finding themselves. —Mr. Purshotam, photographer and owner of the Mombasa Photo Studio The study of African photography has emerged as a dynamic and widely appreciated field over the last decade. However, much of the literature is related to the presentation of photography by Africans within museum and gallery contexts, with only a handful of scholars providing discussions based on in-depth and onsiteresearch .Myownresearchhasexploredtherecentpracticeofblack-and-white studio photography along the Indian Ocean coast and specifically in Mombasa, Kenya. Fifty years after the region’s first studio was established and began producing postcards in Zanzibar, photographers of South Asian backgrounds began tailoring their services to diverse studio customers. In Mombasa, these urban Swahili, Asian African, and newly urban African clients used portrait photography , from the 1940s to the 1980s, to imagine, negotiate, and produce new urban subjectivities. Together with their photographers, they engaged in a creative and collaborative process drawing upon diverse elements, from Islam and Hinduism to Indian film, Hollywood headshots, and European fashion, in order to create 254 Figure 7.1. A. C. Gomes, 1888. Gomes was one of first photographers in the area. He carefully posed these women to resemble a European painting and took the photograph. The arrangement, therefore, is an articulation of the photographer and not the sitters, who are in uncomfortable and unfamiliar positions. It is very unusual, for example, for a woman to show the bottom of her foot. Mombasa on Display 255 idealized images of themselves. Women, in particular, actively participated in this practice, using photography as a critical means of self-determination. Building upon interviews with photographers and clients, this study investigates the imagination and photographic production of Mombasa’s urban identities, creating a platform for a broader and more inclusive discussion of African photography with attention to both its local and its global significance. Portrait Studios in Mombasa Mombasa’s community-based photography studios emerged shortly after the end of World War II. For those who visited and worked within them, they became a part of an urban imagining process, providing spaces in which to display ideas of the city. Within this context, both people and studios in Mombasa participated in the “discourses, symbols, metaphors and fantasies” through which meaning was created from and ascribed to the experience of urban living in Mombasa.1 Thus, as local photographer Mr. Purshotam suggests above, people—Asian Africans , urban Swahili, and newly urban individuals—“found” or identified and constructed ideas of themselves, both by going to photo studios and by living within, passing through, and contributing to the social fabric of the urban environment .2 The photography studio, in turn, emerged as one venue in which people carried out this process of self-identification and cultural performance. Studios became connected intimately to both people and their ideas of the “city” and they were supported by and helped to create a vast “picture taking” audience. What I mean by “urban” in Mombasa is in fact not a distinct place. Even today people work and reside in and move continually both through the city center and into its more suburban spaces. There is an ongoing blurring between what is conceived of as “urban” and “rural.” In this project, I use “urban” to refer primarily to those who reside, work, and spend a significant amount of their time within the central areas of Mombasa. This essay looks at who in Mombasa was involved in this process from the 1940s onward as well as why and how this new urban public for studio photography came into existence. The early photographic image world of coastal East Africa was governed not only by South Asian and European photographers but also by the expectations of their audience. During the early 1900s, photographers Isolde Brielmaier 256 created portraits for select groups of local residents, and they concentrated heavily upon postcard production.3 Yet, toward the mid-twentieth century, the social, economic, and political climate of coastal cities such as Mombasa began to change and so too did the audience for photographic images. While scholars have described Mombasa’s urbanization and cosmopolitanism during this period in terms of labor, production, and the rise of a new proletariat, this discussion takes a somewhat different approach, examining how a local...


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