‘Ratnakara’ (the creator of gems): photography across the Indian Ocean

I’m a big fan of the digitisation projects going on around universities and archives to make historical photographs accessible to everyone. Whilst it’s amazing to see an original daguerrotype, beautifully preserved and framed (or even in a special collection room preserved in the binding), these original prints and negatives are fragile and difficult to exhibit. Like me, you might have noticed that they rarely travel: often they don’t make it beyond capital cities, even if you are in the same country.


The National Museum of African Art launched their first online exhibition last month: Sailors and Daughters: Early Photography and the Indian Ocean World. Curated by Erin Haney, the scholar of photography in Africa, this is a cleverly constructed and important intervention in the field. Whilst digitisation projects online are valuable in that they share photographs from missions, colonial records and private individuals, what’s different about Sailors and Daughters is that they are a curated group of images, rather than an online archive for researchers. This means that not only does it work to raise awareness of the digitisation work going on, connecting a diverse group of online sources, but they are placed in their historical and geographical context. At the same time, the writing is direct and museum quality, no prior knowledge or additional research required. The project’s goal is:

to tell an exceptional story. It is a story that begins when trade flourished in and around the Indian Ocean, sweeping up the East African coast and across the Arabian Peninsula. It is a story of diasporic influence and connecting cultures. It is a story that culminates in the extraordinary beauty found today in the arts of Oman and its influence on the peoples and cultures of eastern Africa.

In exploring the networks across ‘Ratnakara’ or the Indian Ocean, Haney touches on a wide range of themes, from colonial urban construction to ethnography, from abolition to the siting of the culture of photography. Through additional resources made available on the site, it’s also possible to listen to contemporary poetry and music to accompany the photographs, an inspired touch that echoes the multi-layered experience the museum visitor has come to expect.  For those interested in doing further research there are links to the digital collections, such as The Humphrey Winterton Collectino of East African Photographs at NorthWestern University. There is discussion of the range of formats of images included in the exhibition. In particular Haney draws attention to the issues of choice in those sitting for their photograph, from the interest of those posing for the traveller Hermann Burchardt, to the compulsion exercised on those who were ‘freed’ from slave ships only to be indentured in the Seychelles. Yet this act of colonial control via photograph has a powerful impact, reminding the scholar of the slave trade that despite the vast numbers of people tallied on sites such as http://www.slavevoyages.com the trade was personal for each and every individual forced to migrate. As Haney notes:

These early photographs are fragments that together form an essential narrative about migration, and they provide a valuable record of individuals who existed under harsh conditions. Ultimately, they defy and alter our expectations of what precisely constitutes a portrait.

I am disappointed that the museum was not able to (unwilling?) to negotiate access to the research texts cited for further reading: dhows9-cropsadly these are going to be difficult to access for all but those attending universities which support Africana library spending.  For me, making at least sections of these text accessible would demonstrate the commitment to wider education shown elsewhere in the exhibition.

This ongoing question of online access to knowledge aside, this is an important step in making these histories accessible beyond capital cities, beyond those able to visit the galleries.

Access the exhibition ‘Sailors and Daughters’ here.

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