The Colonial Interior: Photography and Domesticity in East Africa

The courtyard at Seremai was surrounded by a corridor and the rooms of the house led off from this. My favourite was the drawing room. It had a beautiful parquet floor, made of cedar wood, which was kept immaculately polished, a baronial fireplace and a grand piano, which must have been put there to impress as it was hardly ever used. John Carberry, like most settlers of that era, was a dedicated hunter and the drawing room was filled with his hunting trophies. A huge buffalo’s head dominated the fireplace; one of the sofas was covered with a black leopard skin, while a lamp made of a stuffed albino colobus monkey holding up a light bulb stood on the piano. Leading out of the drawing room was the dining room. This contained the gun cupboard. It was never locked.

 Juanita Carberry, Child of Happy Valley: a Memoir (p.26)

In her searing memoir of colonial Kenya in the inter-war period, Juanita Carberry re-enters the colonial interior of childhood memory. There is something particularly photographic about the intricate detail she recalls of such distant memories. Perhaps, as one might suspect, she is using photography here as a door through which to renter the hidden spaces of memory. The successful evocation of a sense of place and time in literature, after all, partly depends on the writer’s ability to use the power of detail as a vehicle to communicate deeper meaning. As Carberry suggests through her memory-work, the visual description of the colonial domestic interior seems to map directly onto the colonial ambition to domesticate the Other through the social and cultural processes of empire. One example of this has recently been explored by Susie Protschky in the context of photographs of theeuurtje or ‘tea-time’ in colonial Java, where both colonial and Dutch-speaking Javanese elite families would often pose to enact for the camera this ‘social ritual of consequence to the people who repeatedly participated in its enactment and commemoration’. (Protschky 2012: 44)

In colonial East Africa, domestic photography was also heavily inflected by assumptions about the gendered space of the colonial home. In an album compiled by tropical entomologist T.A.M. Nash (and possibly also his wife) between 1927 and 1932 in Tanganyika, two pages of images showing his home “Rhino Hall” are offered to the viewer for comparison: ‘before marriage’ and ‘after marriage’.

‘Rhino Hall II: before marriage’ [1998.304.2] T.A.M. Nash collection

At the top of the first page are views of the interior of the house, with the horned skulls of big-game trophies hung on the walls, fly whisks and other local material culture mounted below, and more animal skins on the floor. The architecture and furnishings are simple and reflect the interests of a young scientist whose main recreational activity was hunting. ‘How else could a young man amuse himself in bush?’, he writes in a hand-written note accompanying the album. ‘He could not afford a super camera with telephoto lens for game photography. It took weeks to get a film developed, before there was an air service.’ [i] On the page titled ‘after marriage’, two photographs of the exterior of the house are placed above, showing the creation of a garden outside the house complete with a planted circular border and edging stones leading away to a floral archway further down the path. 

‘Rhino Hall II: after marriage’ [1998.304.2] T.A.M. Nash collection

The interior photographs show changes made to the rooms with the addition of fabrics, more seating, and decorative items hanging from the ceiling. There is a gramophone, a desk with a framed photograph of a woman posed after the style of English fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, and a dining table laid for dinner with glassware and candles. At the bottom of the page is a photograph of Mrs Nash in a summer dress standing on the footplate of a motorcar, suggesting both her arrival from the colonial centre as well as the values of modernity and comfort she is bringing with her. To the small circle of friends and family to whom the album was offered for viewing, such an album is a complex document in terms of its addressivity (Bakhtin 1986). There is a strong sense in these pages that they are being (flatteringly) addressed to Nash’s wife, and that T.A.M. Nash is the compiler of this visual narrative of domestic transformation. But the addressivity of the album is not confined to the couple, and also contains a strong sense in which the direct correlation offered – between marriage and domestic transformation – is addressed to an audience of married friends and relatives, who all share the same values, life experiences, and gender assumptions.

[1998.97.580] photograph by Jean Buxton, Sudan, 1950-2. © Pitt Rivers Museum

In a carefully constructed photograph by anthropologist Jean Buxton sometime during 1950-2, a colonial couple (possibly administrator Paul P. Howell and his wife) are pictured in their home somewhere in Sudan, where Buxton was conducting fieldwork. The camera is positioned so as to incorporate aspects of both inside and outside living spaces, which have been architecturally blended together by a large opening in the wall, with folding doors that could be closed at night. Inside, next to a bookcase, a man in a suit reads a book in an armchair; outside on the veranda sits his wife on a low stool, shaded from the strong sun by a large parasol. The woman looks back towards the camera, addressing the viewer. The gendered return gaze seems to address a female audience through Jean Buxton as photographer. There is a self-consciousness about the gender positioning of the couple within the composition. On one level it suggests a continuity of gendered domestic space, especially the man sitting in the single armchair next to the bookshelf; yet it also subtlety inverts such atavistic values by imagining a new feminised space of leisure and independence outside the home, in the social space of the veranda. There is a strong communicative message here about early 1950s notions of modernity, especially in the interconnection between architecture and gender relations, self-consciously performed for the camera. The theme of modernity continues in a related image, where Buxton turns her camera to photograph another view of the room. The main focus of the image is the display cabinet on one of the walls which has been constructed as a single wall with openings in which a variety of sculptural items are displayed – Staffordshire pottery figures of horses and riders, other European ceramic objects, as well as two pottery heads of zebra, twisting their heads gracefully back towards their necks. Nearby, hung on the wall, is an oil painting of a European cityscape with a river in the foreground.

As this framing has explored using two case studies from mid twentieth century East Africa, photographs of colonial domestic life, and interiors in particular, need to be understood in terms of their inherent addressivity. In the case of Nash’s album charting the transformation of Rhino Hall after marriage, the addressivity is complex: the intimate narrative space of the marital relationship seems to open out to include the slightly wider, and yet intended, audience of friends and family. Yet in its generalized narrative of colonial experience the album also addresses an unintended general audience of shared values and experiences. These complex historical objects are not simply an assemblage of images, but complex documents that need to be read in terms of their communicative structures. We need to understand the socio-cultural work that such documents were intended to do; an analysis that takes one further than the concept of ‘narrative’.

[1998.97.581] photograph by Jean Buxton, Sudan, 1950-2. © Pitt Rivers Museum

Christopher Morton

Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

[i]  Hand-written note titled ‘Big Game Hunting’, dated 25/2/78. Related Documents File for Nash collection [1998.304]