In 2018, photographer Sana Ginwalla visited Fine Art Studios in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, to buy some film camera batteries. In the studio, she found cupboards full of neglected prints, slides and negatives from the time the studio was run by Ratubhai Somabhai Patel and Hirabhai Lalbhai Patel.
“The works of renowned photographers like Malick Sidibé and Seydou Keita immediately came to mind,” she says. “I was ecstatic to see that Zambia had its own collection of similar images. Seeing how light-damaged the photographs already were and recognising the value in these photographs, I wanted to preserve these rarities – locate the negatives or at least scan the prints. I had no idea what I was going to do with these images, for whom or for what.”
Move forward a couple of years and with an ANT Adaptation Fund grant from Pro Helvetia Johannesburg, Ginawalla is curating the images for exhibition in Lusaka and beyond. Titled “Zambia Belonging,” the project aims to create a “counter archive” by identifying photographers, subjects and themes and telling new stories from the discoveries made.
The images provide a valuable addition to the vernacular visual culture of Zambia. Go to the Africa in the Photobook website and you’ll find 5 photobooks listed in the Zambia section. Two are compendiums with Zambia but a footnote, and four are made by European photographers (including Cristina de Middel’s The Afronauts. It’s a great book but it was made in Spain and no Zambians were photographed in its making). The only images that might be made by Zambians are those by the “various photographers” cited in Helping Ourselves, a book published to celebrate Zambia’s independence in 1964.
It’s a book that comes with a short text which begins:
The sun is setting.
On poverty and ignorance and despair
the past is not forgotten
and the future faced without fear
Self help is the key to progress
Helping Ourselves hits the major tropes of the independence photobook. It directly depicts independence in agriculture, industry, education, and in the military. The book is of a genre where visibility is everything (just as invisibility was everything in the colonial photobook). Instead of white doctors tending to black patients with underlying messages of white saviours and helpless blacks (which you will see in colonial-era photobooks), you see black doctors tending to white patients. There are black engineers, scientists, and teachers, and in the classroom, black and white schoolkids mix as equals. Visibility and agency matter in these books.
The Fine Art Studios archive riffs off these themes of independence with added elements that link both to the broader studio traditions mentioned above, as well as themes unique to Zambian political and cultural developments.
There are images that link to music, to fashion, to the struggles of development. Propaganda overlaps with class, ethnicity and the elemental desire to make somebody look and feel great through photography (something both Sidibe and Keita so successfully made a central part of their work. Looking great matters!).
So you see portraits of businessmen posing on chairs, dapper with tiepins and cufflinks, and you see young couples expressing their love for each other, he adoring as he drapes his arm around her, she more doubtful. There are images of musicians posing for publicity shots; a couple stands smiling, she resplendent in headband and 1980s perm, another shows a group of musicians in trilbies and tails. There are images of a high-powered group of women all dressed in black, and a group of men who are musicians, martial artists, or a combination of the two.
The diversity of Lusaka is also shown in the images (the owners of Fine Art Studios were of Indian heritage). There are ethnic India families, white couples, and an Indian man who is a straight-up double of Malkhan Singh, the romanticized dacoit of 1980s India.
A series of images shows a white family celebrating Christmas on their land. In a sequence of images, you see them sitting outside, a servant standing to one side. There’s a father, a mother, a daughter, and a man who seems to be visiting. The men wear long shorts and knee-high socks, the woman wears a long-sleeved dressed buttoned right up to the top, but with her belly showing. They all wear paper hats, the kind you get from a Christmas cracker, except the servant. Next shot, the servant is wearing a paper hat, but he’s not looking any jollier. It’s the kind of image that Sarah Waiswa played off in her Lips Touched with Blood series, and it’s instantly recognizable. Incorporating the family help into your photographs rarely looks good.
Many of these images are left behind images, photographic orphans that were never picked up by the people that commissioned them. These are not perfect images, but rather images that were left behind both by being unpaid for and uncollected, but also in their composition and their subsequent storage. They are rough around the edges in so many ways, with an appeal that lies in the rawness of photographic expression and the ravages that time and climate have played on the surfaces of the prints and negatives.
That rawness is added to by the images that tie into wider photographic functions. There’s wedding photography that was never collected; a serious-looking couple emerges from the church with rice in their hair, a child staring out of the back seat of the white Mercedes that will pick them up, a pair of nuns laughing on the church grounds.
There are infrastructure images of barracks and cement works, and there are images that link to Zambian politics and the way that photography was entwined with African struggles for independence. Perhaps the finest of these is a series of hand-painted portraits of Kenneth Kaunda, Zambia’s independence leader and first president, Mainza Chona, and Simon Kapwepwe (the Fine Art Studios prided itself on photographing key figures in Zambia’s independence movement).
Ginawalla is hoping these images are the tip of a photographic iceberg, with further images (including those by Alick Phirri, a former Fine Art Studios photographer who set up his own business in a working-class township and made some wonderful images – sadly not yet available to be shown here) being sought out.
By the end of the year, these images will be exhibited in Lusaka, and by 2022 in other cities and countries as a starting point for the development of local photographic voices that will encourage engagement on a cultural and photographic level and find new ways of telling visual stories about Zambia, its histories, and its peoples.
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.