Monday 9/12 Aga Khan Program Lectures

Jose Luis Arguello's picture
September 12, 2016
Massachusetts, United States
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, African History / Studies, Arabic History / Studies, Art, Art History & Visual Studies, Islamic History / Studies


September 12, in cooperation with the MIT HTC Forum

The Surface of Things:
A History of Photography from the Swahili Coast
Sandy Prita Meier
Assistant Professor of African Art History, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Monday at 6:00 pm in MIT Room 3-133. Free and open to the public.


Photography, especially studio portraiture, became instantly popular on the Swahili coast of eastern Africa and by the 1880s residents of such port cities as Mombasa and Zanzibar avidly collected and commissioned photographs of locals and distant others. Although photography was used as a medium for the performance of selfhood later on, during its early history it was about murkier, even intractable meanings. Rather than focus on its realist abilities, its role as a picture of a person’s life, I foreground its qualities as an object, showing how photographs worked as relational things colliding with other things--such as bodies, commodities, and heirlooms in the mercantile world of the Swahili coast. From this perspective it becomes apparent that photographic portraits, although seemingly about the sitter’s desire to express some essential aspect of his or her being, was often about quite the opposite. Namely, it was about the textural effects and the desire to hold onto bodies as things.


Prita Meier (PhD, Harvard University) is assistant professor of African art history at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research focuses on the arts and architectures of east African port cities and histories of transcontinental exchange and conflict. She is the author of Swahili Port Cities: The Architecture of Elsewhere (Indiana University Press, 2016) and has publications in Art History, African Arts, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Artforum, and Arab Studies Journal, as well as contributions in several exhibition catalogs and edited books. Currently she is working on a new book about the social and aesthetic history of photography in Zanzibar and Mombasa and is co-organizing an exhibition and edited volume titled World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean (which received a 2016-17 NEH Humanities Projects grant). She has also held fellowships at the Clark Art Institute (2014-2015), Cornell University’s Society for the Humanities (2009-2010) and Johns Hopkins University (2007-2009).

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