In 1942, Indian photographer NV Parekh (1923-2007) and his brother Chandulai opened Victory Studio in Mombasa, Kenya. Their photo covers carry the philosophy of the house: “A good portrait is a happy investment that will be interesting for many years to come. Let us portray you in a lifelike way. Make an appointment in our modern studio now before you forget.”
At the time, not even 20 years old, Parekh came to photography purely by accident. After his father, who ran a photo studio, died in 1939, Parekh had to find a job. The following year he began working for a family friend who ran a photo studio, learned the trade and went into business for himself. Parekh was a success in a short time and quickly became one of the most sought-after portrait photographers in East Africa.
In the decades leading up to Kenyan independence in 1963, Parekh produced an extraordinary number of photographs of the era. But his archive lay hidden until 2000, when Isolde Brielmaier, a doctoral student in art history at Columbia University, set to work uncovering this hidden chapter in Asian-African photographic history. In connection with the recent release of I Am Sparkling: NV Parekh and His Portrait Studio Clients, Mombasa, Kenya, 1940-1980.
glamor and fantasy
As Kenya headed towards independence in the mid-20th century, Victory Studio became a space of opportunity. Within the sanctuary of this private space, clients were now free to imagine, explore and play with expressions of identity. Equal parts construction and likeness, the portrait became a canvas upon which they could realize their dreams and aspirations, composing an image for posterity while simultaneously empowering them to create a future self.
“In many ways, the term ‘photography’ seems inappropriate for the way many Mombasa residents have conceived and described their experiences in the studio,” reveals Isolde Brielmaier in the introduction to I Am Sparkling. The studio clients Brielmaier spoke to while researching this work spoke of the interaction between sitter and photographer to take the picture themselves, perhaps in the same way one would collaborate with a painter on a portrait.
The element of performance is an integral part of photographer NV Parekh’s work, as those modeled were free to imagine their identity beyond the traditional traits of class, religion, status, gender and ethnicity. Some have drawn inspiration from Hollywood and Bollywood cinema screens to express their own ideals of glamor and fantasy.
“Indian film is about romance and dreams,” Parekh told Brielmaier. “I think ordinary people go to the movies to escape the more difficult realities of life. They see their dreams come true on screen and this is achieved through a world of performance, beauty, music… And that’s exactly what I would try to capture in the studio when I take cinematic photos like this.”
NV Parekh’s clients were first Asian Africans and then members of the Swahili communities, particularly in the post-independence years with the rise of an urban bourgeoisie. “The idea of a new urban self as a proud, striving, productive and acquiring being plays a prominent role in many (if not all) portraits of the 1960s and 1970s,” writes Isolde Brielmaier.
During these years, NV Parekh’s photographs moved away from colonial ideas of a collective identity. However, Parekh still placed idealization above reality, preferring to highlight the best qualities of a sitter rather than showing the unflattering realities of life. “A photograph should appeal to the eyes and the heart,” Parekh told Brielmaier as he explained his idea of the “true portrait.” Indeed, many desire a sublime image that reveals their highest self, a radiant blend of mind, body and spirit that makes them feel validated.
Brielmaier spoke to a sitter, Ms. Uweso, who Parekh visited throughout her life for “glamor shots” to hang in her home or give to her husband. “I really wanted to see what I looked like at different stages of my life and these types of photos gave me the opportunity to do that. They made me think about who I am and sometimes who I wanted to be: they were able to remind me of what I wanted to do in my life,” said Ms. Uweso.
“That’s what photography is for…to keep track of yourself, your thoughts, and all the different things that might be happening in your life. And at the same time I could dream in the studio. Look at the light, the glow… it looks like I’m floating in another world. I’m beaming.”
I Am Sparkling: NV Parekh and His Portrait Studio Clients, Mombasa, Kenya, 1940-1980 Appears Damiani, €45.00.