I Am Sparkling: N.V. Parekh and His Portrait Studio Clients
“Look, I’m sparkling in this picture!” exclaimed Mrs. Uweso, as she described her portrait from N.V. Parekh’s Mombasa studio to Isolde Brielmaier several years later. This is one of several first-hand accounts from Parekh’s sitters included in Brielmaier’s newly released book, I Am Sparkling: N.V. 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. Small selections of studio portrait photographs from East Africa circulated across the Global North. This flock of images, on the one hand, was suitable for creating cross-global awareness; however, a crucial issue remained: people were still speaking and theorizing about the identities and experiences of the subjects. As a result, Brielmaier, then a graduate student at Columbia University and today the deputy director of the New Museum, spent fourteen months in Mombasa, Kenya, uncovering thousands of Parekh’s lost archives, much of it poorly maintained, with a mission to rediscover Mombasa’s rich, visual history, through the words of the sitters who made up the very content of the images. Her research at Columbia provided the impetus for I Am Sparkling, which brings forth a previously unseen archive of studio portraits complemented by first-hand interviews with Parekh’s distinct clientele.
Mrs. Uweso was one of many clients who visited the Mombasa studio belonging to the Indian-Kenyan photographer. Parekh first opened his black-and-white portrait studio in 1942. During this time and until the eighties, individuals visited Parekh’s studio from all over East Africa, eager to have their portraits taken. Clients commissioned all kinds of portraits, often memorializing important events such as weddings and graduations, among other festivities. This was a chance to emulate their sense of personhood. In such, the studio enabled a pivotal space for identity formation. Following Parekh’s retirement in the early 1980s, his seminal portrait practice became virtually unknown.
Brielmaier’s book offers a counter-narrative to engaging with African photographic archives as well as photographic histories at large. Challenging the history of canonizing and prioritizing photographers, she instead shifts the focus to Parekh’s sitters, particularly women, as a crucial part of the image itself. She fosters a new space to explore East African identity, highlighting agency and visibility through themes of fashion, history, and portrait photography. In discussing Parekh’s portraits, Brielmaier told me, “Too often African voices are silenced or overlooked,” hence she included several accounts by Parekh’s studio clients as a way to amplify their stories and experiences in the photo studio. And in doing so, Brielmaier sheds light on why individuals, particularly in twentieth-century East Africa, sought out portraits, and by extension, how they used their images once completed.
Brielmaier’s vivid visual descriptions not only transport readers throughout time, but encourage readers to critically engage with the role of studio photography in communities of diaspora. In her book, Brielmaier says Parekh “was very aware of the transcultural nature of his photographic practice.” In a wedding portrait from 1956, a Swahili client is dressed in a kanzu (robe) and kilemba (head wrap), while holding a traditional Omani-Arab sword, indicating his multi-ethnic identity. The emphasis on Parekh’s diverse clientele highlights Mombasa’s history. In 1896 a flood of immigrants—many indentured servants—from colonial British India, arrived in the port of Mombasa to build the Mombasa-Uganda Railway. Parekh’s imagery encapsulates these rich histories and expresses the intersection of visual culture and multiple diasporas.
Parekh’s collaborative practice plays with several cross-cultural references. His black-and-white portraits were often staged, with varied poses, spare props, experimental lights, and backdrops. Beyond this, Parekh’s compositions often borrowed visual elements from formal European painting, while simultaneously including cinematic references to Bollywood. In Portrait (couple in sunglasses), from 1957, a couple poses, with the male positioned slightly higher, in profile, both wearing sunglasses. Their shared mysterious gaze is further enhanced by Parekh’s use of old Bollywood theatricals, including dramatic lighting, poses, and composition. These cross-cultural dialogues reflect the social and cultural exchanges along the Indian Ocean coast of eastern Africa at this time.
Fashion is another major theme seen throughout Parekh’s image-making. The years following Kenya’s independence, in 1963, marked an influx in desire for new modes of urban subjectivities, with studio clients experimenting with fashion, and hairstyles, among other visual elements. Portrait of a couple, from 1970, features a young man and woman, facing each other, as they lean on a classical column, with their hands slightly touching. He wears a dashiki, a common fashion garment in both Africa and the US, especially during the sixties and seventies, while she wears an elegant, plaid dress. Parekh’s sitters often drew on references to 1960’s African American culture, such as the afro and the dashiki. His studio provided a space for Mombasans to self-fashion and self-articulate their place within culture.
I am Sparkling encourages readers to rethink histories of power and privilege, and more so, its relationship with the archive. It is Brielmaier’s critical questions, such as, “What did they do with their images once completed?” that urge the reader to contemplate the importance of sustaining the archive as a form of diasporic connection and even recollection. Brielmaier’s book reveals Parekh’s studio as a space for clients to control how their images would appear, and more importantly, how their images would be used. Brielmaier’s approach to reading Parekh’s oeuvre draws closely to art historian Tina M. Campt’s ideology of listening to images as critical to the Black Atlantic archive. Parekh's visual archive is a testimony, or as Campt says, a “practice of visibility.”1 I am Sparkling is part of Brielmaier’s efforts to fill in the missing void of scholarship on photography in East Africa.
Tina Campt, Listening To Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), p. 6, 7.