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The joyful collaborations of an Indian Kenyan portrait photographer

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Parekh’s first studio, Victory, opened in 1942 and he quickly became one of East Africa’s best-known portrait photographers. For nearly half a century, the middle classes of Mombasa and elsewhere have visited it to mark happy occasions of all kinds; he produced around ten thousand portraits in his first twenty-five years alone. Parekh retired and emigrated to Britain in the early 1980s, selling his business and archives. In 2000, Isolde Brielmaier, then a PhD student in art history at Columbia University, began cataloging Parekh’s work and spent fourteen months salvaging negatives from the attic of her former studio. “It was really wet. They were all in boxes. A lot of the negatives were glued together, even the prints had faded by then,” Brielmaier told me recently. As part of her thesis, she interviewed Parekh and his former patrons, motivated, in part, by a lack of scholarship on the visual culture of the Swahili coast. Now deputy director of the New Museum, Brielmaier is the author of a book, “i am bubblydedicated to Parekh’s life’s work and the dynamic environment his studio catered to. (Parekh died in 2007. His archive, acquired by an Italian poet in the early 2000s, is currently in a private collection in Verona.)

Parekh’s predecessors in the region were a generation of largely European and South Asian photographers operating studios around the turn of the 20th century. They were proponents of the postcard image – exotic portraits of local scenes intended for consumption by European audiences abroad. Women, dressed in kanga cloth, posed in staged images. One of these postcards, “Swahily Beauties of Zanzibar”, by AC Gomes, from 1888, depicts four barefoot women, dressed in traditional patterned fabrics, posing against a background of flowers and painted arches. They are positioned in the pyramidal composition which, according to Brielmaier, evokes Orientalist paintings from the end of the 19th century.

Parekh was born in Mombasa in 1923 to a father from Gujarat who had arrived in Kenya twenty years earlier. He apprenticed in a family friend’s photo studio before opening Parekh & Company in Mombasa with his brother, Chandulal. At that time, the practice of portrait photography no longer resembled that of postcard images. Where previous portrait photographers treated their African sitters as silent curiosities for an outside audience, Studio Parekh produced portraits for the enjoyment of the subjects themselves. Its clientele represented an ethnically diverse cross-section of Mombasa’s upper class—a largely affluent urban class who had benefited from the city’s post-war prosperity and who were interested in documenting their own lives. “These are images of Parekh, but these are images of Parekh working with the people you see,” Brielmaier said.