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By Wambui Mwangi

Friday, July 22, 2011

Towards the end of 2008, the Goethe Institut in Nairobi, in co-operation with  Iwalewa House and the University of Beyreuth hosted Piga Picha, an exhibition of the history of studio photography in Nairobi.   They included the archives of notable and history-shaping studios like Studio One, Ramogi and Maridadi.  Goethe invited several Kenyan intellectuals to write texts accompanying specific sections of the collection of images: I was one of them.

My assignment was to write on a group of family photographs—the kind that people put up on their living room walls and are typically either of family members or other important components of that household’s sense of ‘we.’  This living room display space has long fascinated me: on the one hand, there is the Greek notion of oikos (domestic space) as the basic unit of society; on the other hand there is the traditional distinction between the public (male) world of politics and 'reason' and the private (female) one of  private lives, emotion and affectivity.  

Straddling these and subverting both is the living room as simultaneously a private space and a platform of public display, at once domestic (it is part of the house) and public (that is where visitors and strangers are received.)  It becomes a particularly illuminating matrix through which to consider the distinctions and interpenetrations of ‘outside’ and ‘inside,’  but also those between the citizen-self who is deployed in public and the subject-self that is reconstituted ‘at home.’

The  Piga Picha images were rife with inter-generational visual dissonances and divergences--they looked both old and 'old-fashioned,' and this quality of speaking from history is a large part of their appeal.   

The critical scholar bell hooks has written on how these kinds of images and these domestic galleries of genealogy sustained a counter-narrative for African Americans otherwise subjected either to invisibility or to the white supremacist visions/versions of their existence.  

More recently, Keguro Macharia has speculated that these practices of photographic exhibition in the semi-private and semi-public spaces of the living rooms were, in the Kenyan context, a mapping of the African encounter with modernity.*  Thus, they worked as visual liturgies as well as litanies of the stages of social transformation experienced by this family unit (itself under construction) and were displayed as the congealed embodiments of  a dynamic social status.  Common examples images that memorialise the first bicycle in the family, or a portrait of the first person in the family to graduate from high school or university, or of a wedding, or of a grandfather wearing his only suit and looking both stern and proud.

Thus, the Piga Picha images were of interest to me as historical documents and as instances of a specific mode of historiography of 'family' and belonging, being rife with Afros and bell-bottoms.  In addition, though, and because they were studio photographs, they were enmeshed in the related but sometimes contradictory ideas of what photographers at the time thought individual or group portraits should look like, how the people photographed wanted themselves to be seen, and how the viewing audience engaged its own perceptual frameworks of nostalgia and memory.  By far the most poignant element is the consideration of the willed and ‘official’ appearance: these are precisely the photographs that people place on their living room walls or on their desk at the office, or carry around in the wallets until they have baby pictures to show off instead.  They are images of our ideal selves, or more precisely, they are our ideal images of ourselves.  Sort of the official private photographs—the authorised visual representation of that person.

We had one in our house: the official public/private photograph of my mother.  There was a framed version on the bookshelf in the living room and another in my bedroom.  I remember her sending off the same photograph with her documents for conferences and talks.  It was evidently the way she wanted to look and be seen by the rest of the world, and is in fact the way I remember her much of the time.  However, I never actually saw her looking like this—I was born after this version of her was ‘real.’   She liked the colour version of this image. I prefer the black and white: further prisms of refraction.

Most people have a similar, singular image of themselves, which, at least for a while, represents how they want to be seen.  (Profile pictures on Facebook, for example—an updated version of the living room wall.  Facebook raises similar questions about the perceived lines between the public and the private).   If these images anchor our domestic photographic rituals and portray an ‘ideal self,’  of whom are all the other photographs?  Put another way, if a specific image seems to more perfectly, or more accurately, or more beautifully show us as we would like to be seen and remembered, what is the status of other, less favoured photographs?

Everybody has at least one photograph of themselves that they dislike intensely, often hanging onto it precisely to prevent it coming into the possession of others.  How do these disavowed, even abject, photographic versions influence our ideas of self?  What impulses or perceptual shifts mark the sequential transference of preference or dislike over a series of images and over time?

Sometime during the 80s, my mother changed her ‘official’ picture.  In the newer one she was older, rounder, more doctor-ly, less glamorous.  I have no idea what made her switch, except perhaps for a wish for greater congruence between how she looked then and what her photographs showed. Perhaps the twenty year gap between her photographed self and her corporeal self had become unsustainable.  That is also fairly arbitrary: we never really ‘look’ the way our images show us, although we may certainly look very different in different images, which brings us back to the question. How do we read/see these differences?  How do we feel them?  I note that it worked somehow differently for President Moi and the currency notes in the latter part of his regime.  Other people update their images because they accept that they look older, after an interval of years.  President Moi was rendered more youthful by at least twenty years between one currency issue and the next.  Marx was right: money is magical.

I still remember my mother like this.  Now I have the object of the old photograph, printed on aging paper and showing signs of wear and tear, and a new virtual object of the digital photograph which has no material defects at all, lacking materiality itself.  Ever new, ever young.

Wambui Mwangi is a photographer, writer and academic. She is the founder of Generation Kenya and she blogs at Mad Kenyan Woman.

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