I am sparkling: NV Parekh and his Portraitstudio clients
“Look, I sparkle in this picture!” exclaimed Ms. Uweso when she described her portrait from NV Parekh’s studio in Mombasa to Isolde Brielmaier a few years later. This is one of several first-hand accounts from Parekh’s sitters included in Brielmaier’s newly published book. I Am Sparkling: NV Parekh and His Portrait Studio Clients: Mombasa, Kenya, 1940-1980. It was the turn of the millennium, and Brielmaier was reflecting on the wave of post-colonial studies and theories—she was eager to jump in. A small selection of studio portrait photographs from East Africa circulated in the Global North. On the one hand, this swarm of images was suitable for creating awareness worldwide; A crucial problem remained, however: people still talked and theorized about subjects’ identities and experiences. As a result, Brielmaier, then a graduate student at Columbia University and now associate director of the New Museum, spent fourteen months in Mombasa, Kenya uncovering thousands of Parekh’s lost archives, many of which were poorly maintained, with a mission to rediscover Mombasa’s rich, visual history , through the words of the sitter, which constitute the actual content of the pictures. Her research at Columbia provided the impetus for i am sparklingwhich produces a previously unpublished archive of studio portraits, supplemented by first-hand interviews with Parekh’s diverse clientele.
Ms. Uweso was one of many clients who visited the Indian-Kenyan photographer’s studio in Mombasa. Parekh first opened his black and white portrait studio in 1942. During this period and into the 1980s, individuals visited Parekh’s studio from all over East Africa, eager to have their portraits taken. Clients commissioned all kinds of portraits, often commemorating important events such as weddings and graduations, among other things. This was an opportunity to emulate her sense of personality. The studio provided a central space for identity formation. After Parekh’s retirement in the early 1980s, his pioneering portraiture practice became virtually unknown.
Brielmaier’s book offers a counter-narrative to the examination of African photo archives and the history of photography in general. Challenging the history of photographer canonization and prioritization, she instead shifts the focus to Parekh’s models, particularly women, as a crucial part of the image itself. She promotes a new space for exploring East African identity, elevating agency and visibility Themes such as fashion, history and portrait photography emerge. In discussing Parekh’s portraits, Brielmaier told me, “Too often African voices are silenced or overlooked,” so she included several accounts from Parekh’s studio clients to reinforce her stories and experiences in the photo studio. And in the process, Brielmaier sheds light on why people, particularly in 20th-century East Africa, sought portraits and how they used their images once they were completed.
Brielmaier’s vivid visual descriptions not only transport readers through time, but encourage readers to engage critically with the role of studio photography in diaspora communities. In her book, Brielmaier says that Parekh was “very aware of the transcultural nature of his photographic practice”. In a 1956 wedding portrait, a Swahili client wears one kanzu (robe) and Kilemba (headgear) while holding a traditional Omani-Arabian sword indicating his multi-ethnic identity. The emphasis on Parekh’s diverse clientele underscores Mombasa’s history. In 1896, a flood of immigrants – many indentured laborers – arrived at the port of Mombasa from colonial British India to build the Mombasa-Uganda railway. Parekh’s images encapsulate these rich stories and express the intersection of visual culture and multiple diasporas.
Parekh’s collaborative practice plays with multiple cross-cultural references. His black and white portraits were often staged, using varied poses, substitute props, experimental lights and backdrops. Additionally, Parekh’s compositions often borrowed visual elements from formal European painting while simultaneously incorporating cinematic references to Bollywood. in the Portrait (Couple with sunglasses), from 1957, a few poses with the male positioned slightly higher, in profile, both wearing sunglasses. Their shared mysterious gaze is further enhanced by Parekh’s use of vintage Bollywood theatrics, including dramatic lighting, poses and composition. These cross-cultural dialogues reflect the social and cultural exchanges along the Indian Ocean coast of East Africa at the time.
Fashion is another important theme in Parekh’s image creation. The years following Kenya’s independence in 1963 marked a growing desire for new forms of urban subjectivity, with studio clients experimenting with fashion and hairstyles, among other things. Portrait of a couple, from 1970, shows a young man and woman facing each other, leaning against a classical column, their hands touching lightly. He wears a dashiki, a fashionable item of clothing common in Africa and the United States, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s, while she wears an elegant plaid dress. Parekh’s sitters often drew on references to 1960s African American culture, such as afro and dashiki. His studio provided a space for Mombasans to create themselves and articulate their place in the culture for themselves.
i am sparkling encourages readers to consider the history of power and privilege, and even more so, its relationship to the archive. It is Brielmaier’s critical questions like “What did you do with your paintings after they were finished?” that prompt the reader to reflect on the importance of preserving the archive as a form of diasporic connection and even memory. Brielmaier’s book showcases Parekh’s studio as a place where clients can control how their images appear and, more importantly, how their images are used. Brielmaier’s approach to reading Parekh’s oeuvre borrows closely from art historian Tina M. Campt’s ideology of listening to images that are vital to the Black Atlantic archive. Parekh’s visual archive is a testimony or, as Campt puts it, a “practice of visibility”.1 i am sparkling is part of Brielmaier’s efforts to fill the gap in photography scholarship in East Africa.
Tina Campt, listen to pictures (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 6, 7