This article explores how an oceanic perspective challenges still pervasive ideas about the constitutive link between place and culture in the study of the arts of Africa. Taking the rich and diverse photographs of nineteenth-century coastal eastern Africa as a springboard, the author considers how portrait photography was not an expression of a local modernity, in the way the concept is narrated in established studies of the cultural dimensions of globalization, but was an expression of the in-between. This can be described as a form of cosmopolitanism or creolization, depending on one’s interpretive predilections, but, most important, it emphasizes that historical actors on the Swahili coast of eastern Africa did not worry about what was authentically local or indigenous in the making of modernity. In coastal eastern African port cities, the photograph became instantly popular in the 1860s, because it was linked to the traveling cultures of the port, giving new form to a very old desire to create aesthetic experiences of oceanic connectedness. Additionally, the portrait photograph allowed residents of the port to merge Swahili ideals of the cultured body, colonial codes of the body, and newly forming ideas about individual subjectivity. Ultimately, the author suggests that in such nonterritorial spaces as the Swahili port city, engaging the artifacts of faraway places is a carefully crafted tactic of translation, where technologies of modernity, such as photography, enable people simultaneously to sustain a sense of distance and closeness to others.
Skip Nav Destination
Research Article| May 01 2020
Beyond Multiple Modernities: East African Port Cities as the Space Between
Nka (2020) 2020 (46): 116–125.
Prita Meier; Beyond Multiple Modernities: East African Port Cities as the Space Between. Nka 1 May 2020; 2020 (46): 116–125. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/10757163-8308234
Download citation file: