Studio Photography as a Dream Machine: Studio Photographers in Kenya 1912-2001

Heike Behrend

"Discovering" Popular African Photographers

Countless photographs have been taken - often stolen - from Africa and its people. This "visual colonialization" may have concealed the fact that also Africans worked as photographers. Rather late, at the beginning of the 1990s, Western anthropologists and art historians realized that also in Africa photographers had created highly complex and aesthetic photographic traditions. In strong opposition to colonial photographs that depicted Africans as "savages" and "primitives" and to the colonial and post-colonial state that tried to fix the identities of its subjects for better control and surveillance, also African photographers have explored the new medium and adapted it to their own needs, desires and artistic conventions.

This exhibition centers on photographs that have been made by Africans for Africans. It centers on what has been called "popular" photography as a means to distinguish it from "art" photography. Yet, this exhibition also attempts to problematize the boundary between art and popular photography and show that popular photographic practice often may be in advance of art practice in its vision of the world.

Studio Photography as a Stage of Playful Transformation

This exhibition centers on studio photography. Commercial studios were established on the East African Coast first by Indian and European photographers in Zanzibar and Mombasa around the 1860s and with Independence since the 1960s increasingly Africans opened studios in most towns of Kenya. Popular studios evolved as a luminal space of playful transformation, as a site to experiment with different images of a modern self. In studios, backdrops and props were used to create incongruous locations and utopias of consumption and, by adopting fancy clothes and poses, customers would change into VIPs and appropriate some sort of globalized glamour. While the world outside the studio could be a world of scarcity, poverty, and exclusion, photo studios provided a space for taking possession of authorized Western and Eastern models of romance, leisure, travel, tourism, beauty and fashion.

Most of the studio photographs that are displayed in this exhibition are from studios situated in Mombasa, a cosmopolitan city on the East African Coast of Kenya, where the African hinterland is connected with the Indian Ocean linking Africa to Arabia, Persia, and India.

Photographic Portraits as a "Technique of the Self"

While the photography of landscapes and still-life never really evolved as popular genres in Africa, it was portrait photography that became extremely successful. Whereas at the beginning only the elite would visit studios to get their portraits, since the 1950s and 60s increasingly men and women of all social classes made use of photography to enhance their visibility, to fix and serialize images of themselves (and others), and found excitement in the uncanny mirroring of their bodies. Not only important events, festivities, rites de passage, and the dead were remembered in photographs, but also banalities of everyday life such as a new haircut, a new dress, or a new boyfriend or girlfriend. Among some young people the new medium led to "photo-mania", a veritable obsession with photographs.

Photographic portraits allow the depicted persons to see themselves mediated by the gaze of another. Media like photography offer a new mode of objectification that, at the same time, transforms human beings into subjects. Indeed, also along the East African coast, photography was used as a new "technique of the self", a means to objectify and at the same time subjectify the photographed person. It fostered new ways of local self-creation, self-examination, as well as self-problematization.

The Set Up of the exhibition

In the first part of the exhibition, selected black-and-white photographs of various studios give insights into the history of (colonial) photographic self-presentation from 1910 up to the 1980s. This period was the "Golden Age" of black-and-white photography in which photographers experimented in various ways with the new medium by retouching, collage techniques and painted backdrops. Through different props, poses, textiles and hairstyles additional local messages were inscribed into the photographs.

With the introduction of color photography and laboratories that specialized in processing, photographers lost their former monopoly and privilege to be the "master of images" and many studios were forced to close down. The decline of studios led, however, to the emergence of a new actor: the street or ambulant photographer. In contrast to Europe and Japan, in most parts of Africa (inclusive Kenya) the figure of the amateur photographer has not evolved on a mass scale and it is the street photographer who as a specialist is providing pictures for most people up to now. This, however, may change rather soon with the spread of digital camera phones also in Africa.

In the second and main part of this exhibition, the photographs of a group of originally street photographers are displayed, the so-called Likoni-Photographers, migrant workers from the western and central provinces of Kenya. At the beginning of the 1990s, they opened small, ambulant studios at the coast of Mombasa. Their customers were poor migrant workers and African tourists who travelled to Mombasa to enjoy the sea and the touristic sites. In their studios, the Likoni-Photographers created a colorful, splendid world out of heterogeneous elements from various parts of the world, tapestries from Turkey that reached Mombasa via Dubai, balloons, plastic flowers, and the glittery decorations from Bombay adorning

Mombasa's Hindu temple during religious festivities. The scenarios in the studios praised, above all, the absent, the foreign, and the global that they gave presence to. They adhered to an aesthetic of bricolage, pastiche, plenitude, luxury and festivity that allowed colors to explode and to depict various places simultaneously. Indeed, the Likoni-Photographers detached themselves from the logic of a fixed place. Transcending the opposition between home and exile, they invented a specific translocal cosmopolitanism, dissolving the separation between "here" and "there" by "being global".

Entering into the World of Art

In October 2001, two Likoni-Photographers, Sammy Njuguna and Bonifaz Wandera, together with the painter Samuel Chakua Masada who had painted most of their backdrops, were invited to attend the international art festival "Steirischer Herbst" in Graz, Austria. They entered the international art world. As just a few weeks before the destruction of the World Trade Center in Manhattan had happened, they decided to make 9/11, the event that "shook the world", the theme of their studio. They transformed the studio into an installation that provided Western audiences with a spectacle of 9/11 for local consumption. Thereby they raised important questions about catastrophes and their violence and commercialization in mass media. Artists and visitors were confronted with their (reflexive) responses and with the ways they resonated with others and were asked to contemplate the possibility of complicity.

This exhibition is curated by Heike Behrend, well-known for her work on African Photography, with the assistance of Oda Masonori, Ishikawa Hiroki and Wakana Shiino. Drawn primarily from Behrend's own photographic collection, the approximately fifty photographs on exhibit open up a new perspective on photography in Africa that never before was shown in Japan.


For Further Reading

H. Behrend, ""Feeling Global": The Likoni Ferry Photographers in Mombasa, Kenya," African Arts, vol. 33, no. 3 (2000), pp. 70-77, 96.

H. Behrend, "Imagined Journeys: The Likoni Ferry Photographers in Mombasa / Kenya," Christopher Pinney & Nicolas Peterson (eds.), Photography's Other Histories, Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, pp. 221-239.

H. Behrend, ""To Make Strange Things Possible": The Photomontages of the Bakor Photo Studio in Lamu, Kenya," Kimani Njogu & John Middleton (eds.), Media and Identity in Africa, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2009, pp. 187-207.