The Joyous Collaborations of an Indian Kenyan Portrait Photographer

Parekh’s first studio, Victory, opened in 1942, and he quickly became one of the best known portrait photographers in East Africa. For almost half a century, the middle classes from Mombasa and further afield visited him to mark happy occasions of all sorts; he produced around ten thousand portraits in his first twenty-five years alone. Parekh retired and migrated to Britain in the early nineteen-eighties, selling his business and archive. In 2000, Isolde Brielmaier, then a doctoral candidate in art history at Columbia University, began cataloguing Parekh’s work, and spent fourteen months salvaging negatives in the attic of his former studio. “It was really humid. They were all in boxes. A lot of the negatives were stuck together, even the prints had faded at that point,” Brielmaier told me recently. As part of her dissertation, she interviewed Parekh and his former clients, motivated, in part, by a lack of scholarship on the visual culture of the Swahili coast. Now the deputy director of the New Museum, Brielmaier has authored a book, “I Am Sparkling,” devoted to Parekh’s lifework and the vibrant milieu to which his studio catered. (Parekh died in 2007. His archive, which was acquired by an Italian poet in the early two-thousands, 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 at the turn of the twentieth century. They were proponents of the postcard image—exoticized portraits of local scenes meant for the consumption of a European audience abroad. Women, clad in kanga cloth, posed in staged pictures. One of these postcards, “Swahily Beauties of Zanzibar,” by A. C. Gomes, from 1888, features four barefoot women, dressed in traditional patterned fabric, posing against a backdrop of flowers and painted arches. They are positioned in the pyramidal composition, which, Brielmaier argues, evokes the Orientalist paintings of the late nineteenth century.

Parekh was born in Mombasa, in 1923, to a father from Gujarat who had arrived in Kenya twenty years prior. He apprenticed at the photo studio of a family friend before opening Parekh & Company in Mombasa with his brother, Chandulal. By this time, the practice of portrait photography no longer resembled that of the postcard pictures. Where earlier portrait photographers treated their African sitters as silent curiosities for outside audiences, the Parekh studio made portraits for the pleasure of the subjects themselves. His clientele represented an ethnically diverse cross-section of Mombasa’s bourgeoisie—an urban, largely affluent class that had benefitted from the city’s postwar prosperity and who took an interest in documenting their own lives. “These are images by Parekh, but these are images by Parekh in collaboration with the people that you’re seeing,” Brielmaier said.

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