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Photography at first sight
The Magic of Colonial Era Photography

The Magic of Colonial Era Photography

Sarah Waiswa reinterprets the archive; how words and pictures can make people appear or disappear.
Sarah Waiswa, Robert my boy © Sarah Waiswa

When you enter the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, you walk past a giant painting of the 1903 Durbar in Delhi, an event to celebrate the coronation of Edward VII, the Emperor of India. There are elephants, Indian royalty, soldiers in the service of the British Empire, and representatives of the British royal family. It’s a monument to British colonial power. Continue through the museum and you walk past displays featuring exhibits looted from Egypt and the Middle East. Move to the second floor and there are paintings dedicated to colonists and slave owners.

The question is how do you recontextualize the past in a country which still exists on its mythologies. One way is by recognizing the history that is embedded in these images and the museum is doing this through commentaries on the works mentioned above that directly link art, history, and violence.

Sarah Waiswa, East African type woman carrying canes © Sarah Waiswa

Another way is to recontextualize work to highlight the mechanisms that underpin our acceptance of state violence in the name of the Empire. That’s what Sarah Waiswa’s exhibition, “Lips Touched with Blood,” does in a very direct and simple way. The exhibition consists of two parts.

The first part is a reframing of images of Kenya taken from the British and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives. It starts with the premise that the importance of photography is not just in what it shows, but what it doesn’t show. Personhood and individuality can be elevated or eliminated through the photograph. Photography can conceal through the image, through the caption, through the combination of the two.

Sarah Waiswa, Lips touched with blood © Sarah Waiswa

The main image is titled Lips Touched with Blood and was taken by Charles Trotter in 1953. It is a huge print of a young man staring back at the camera. He is a suspect in an alleged Mau Mau massacre and his gaze is direct and unflinching. ‘The look on the man’s face is one of power,’ reads the accompanying text. However much the caption seeks to frame the man as guilty, as criminal, as a terrorist, there is something in the man’s face that stops that narrative from taking hold. He is a man and he is present in this picture. That’s why his face is shown.

It’s the exception that proves the rule in this half of the exhibition. All the other images show Kenyans defined by their hierarchical relationship to the white photographers who made the images on show. The captions define and deny identity, and because of this Waiswa has transformed the portrayals of Kenyans into blacked-out silhouettes. She has made their absence apparent. Only the Europeans remain. And the captions.

Sarah Waiswa, Friendship © Sarah Waiswa
Sarah Waiswa, Educated Kikuyu © Sarah Waiswa

The captions here are everything and serve as an alternative guide to the colonial gaze, the tourist gaze, the white gaze, the anthropological gaze. An African and his wife, Friendship, What, no mother? Robert, my boy (also by Charles Trotter), A Kikuyu girl, An educated Kikuyu girl, East African Type no.5, Kikuyu Woman.

These words have a power that could work in isolation. They are words that reveal so much not just about the past history of photography, power, and control, but also about contemporary photography and the same underlying assumptions that still so often underpin it even in the most critical circles.

Sarah Waiswa, Dija from the series “25 Futures” © Sarah Waiswa
Sarah Waiswa, Randy from the series “25 Futures” © Sarah Waiswa

Waiswa’s archival interventions are partnered with her black and white portraits from her 15 Future Series. Here. Here the visual language of racial, economic, political and cultural supremacy comes up against the confidence, creativity, fluidity, and dynamism of young Africans in what Waiswa calls “a reclamation of identity”. Walk past these images and you come full circle, as you turn back to meet the reclamation of identity that started this exhibition and you see the Lips Touched with Blood photograph again. The identity has always been there, the only question is who is taking it away from you and how and why.

By Colin Pantall

Colin Pantall is a writer, photographer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His photography is about childhood and the mythologies of family identity.

“Lips Touched with Blood,” by Sarah Waiswa, is on view at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery as part of Bristol Photo Festival until October 31, 2021. More information here.

Sarah Waiswa, Kelvin from the series “25 Futures” © Sarah Waiswa
Sarah Waiswa, Annette from the series “25 Futures” © Sarah Waiswa
Sarah Waiswa, Sam from the series “25 Futures” © Sarah Waiswa

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