‘Reflections and Refractions from Capital Art Studio’

Pamila Gupta and Meg Samuelson write about their joint research project on Capital Art Studio in Stone Town, Zanzibar.
All photos © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

Ranchhod Oza, c. 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

Ranchhod Oza, c. 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

Capital Art Studio, located on what is now the main tourist artery of Kenyatta Road in Stone Town, is the last of the old photographic studios in Zanzibar. It opened its ornate carved wooden doors in 1930 under the proprietorship of Ranchhod Oza, who arrived from Gujarati five years earlier. He had crossed the Indian Ocean by dhow, bringing with him an amateur passion for photography. Although by then a British Protectorate, Zanzibar had enjoyed the status of an “island metropolis” in the nineteenth century and had attracted a number of photographers from around the Indian Ocean world and beyond. The first of these was the Goan AC Gomes, who established his studio in c.1868. It was here that Ranchhod Oza completed his apprenticeship before opening Capital Art Studio.

Evoking Zanzibar’s metropolitan worldliness in its name – Capital Art Studio – Ranchhod Oza established a richly cosmopolitan practice, undertaking commissioned work for the Omani Sultanate of Zanzibar, producing fashionable postcards of popular Zanzibar views for international circulation, taking studio portraits, documenting political rallies and parades, and wandering the streets of Stone Town to record the changing times. Ranchhod was also a successful business owner and canny political operator, who successfully weathered the tumultuous period of the Zanzibar Revolution of 1964 and its aftermath, during which many other studios closed. Capital Art Studio remained in continuous operation, supported in part by commissions from the new government as it had previously been by the Sultanate. In the early 1980s, Ranchhod Oza began a slow process of passing the practice over to his son, Rohit Oza, who had assumed full responsibility for it by the end of the decade.

We had the opportunity to spend time with Rohit Oza in the studio over three research visits in 2012, 2015, and 2018. What had initially caught our attention when we first entered it in 2011, and what has drawn us back since, was the extraordinarily rich visual archive that both father and son had produced and assembled over nearly a century, and the intriguing practice of “re-taking” images across time: Ranchhod Oza appears to have started this practice after the revolution when he “re-took” some of the street scenes he had photographed before in ways that record both continuity and change; Rohit Oza has continued it as an act of both social documentation and filial devotion.

Ranchhod Oza, 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

Ranchhod Oza, 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

This fascinating collection has enabled us to consider questions of representation as well as to revisit and think afresh about photographic practice and the temporal affordances of the medium. We have, for instance, shown how the medium and the particular practices developed by the Ozas present Zanzibar as melancholy palimpsest in ways that counter its construction by the heritage industry as a nostalgic re-past designed for touristic consumption. The collection also archives, represents and even mimics the historical and contemporary circulations of the Indian Ocean world, and contends with Zanzibar’s pivotal position between this ocean and the African continent, in a manner that enable new ways of thinking about the geohistorical conjunction of Indian Ocean Africa. It is particularly suggestive on how the camera might be counted among the various technologies of transport that it depicts, including dhows, steamships, cars and bicycles. The unique historical pressures that have been placed on this archive elicited our reflections on the dual nature of the photograph as “image-thing”, while the distinctive practice of the “re-take” allows us to advance novel understandings of how subjects move through the photographic frame and how the frame in turn moves across time.

Ranchhod Oza, 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

Ranchhod Oza, 1950s © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

We have also drawn out a range of themes that creatively rethink, rework, and reanimate this set of approximately 160 (found/located) photographs, unmooring it from its British colonial and Omani Sultanate archival logics in order to say something new about Zanzibar’s visual cultures.  A set of inter-related topics have thus emerged from this practice: Goan diasporic dynamism in relation to race and class in Stone Town, and that draws upon earlier comparative work on Goans in Mozambique; patina, pose, and punctum as thoughtful mediums to organize and see the Oza collection differently; a reading of bicycle photographs to convey the worldliness of Zanzibar during the 1950s, and its heyday of a vibrant dhow trade; and meditations on the trope of darkness to return to the elements of photography including its darkroom development processes. It is also possible to visually document a thriving South Asian community (including Goans, Parsis, Sikhs, and Gujaratis) of fathers and sons, tailors and photographers from this collection. A last theme has been that of the recurring motif of Zanzibar’s unique architecture (of doors, windows, and shutters) as a view onto Stone Town’s contemporary heritage and tourist landscape, one that includes Rohit Oza alongside Goan Zanzibari photographers John da Silva (1937-2013) and Robin Baptista.     

All photos © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

You are free to republish articles from the PLP site as long as you credit the author and photographers and that the material is not edited in any way. Please acknowledge the PLP as the source. CC-BY-ND, Creative Commons ~ Attribution-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-ND 4.0) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/4.0/

To read more about Capital Art Studio see:

Gupta, Pamila. (2016). ‘Visuality and Diasporic Dynamism: Goans in Mozambique and Zanzibar’ African Studies, 75:2 (257-277).  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/00020184.2016.1182315)

Gupta, Pamila (2018). ‘(Sensuous) Ways of Seeing in Stone Town, Zanzibar: Patina, Pose, Punctum’ Critical Arts, 32:1 (59-74).

https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02560046.2018.1431298

Gupta, Pamila (2019). ‘Being Goan (Modern) in Zanzibar: Mobility, Relationality and the Stitching of Race’ in Luso-Tropicalism and Its Discontents: The Making and Unmaking of Racial Exceptionalism, edited by Warwick Anderson, Ricardo Roque, and Ricardo Ventura Santos. Oxford: Berghahn, 2019. 

https://www.berghahnbooks.com/title/AndersonLuso-Tropicalism

Gupta, Pamila (2019). ‘Balcony, Door, Shutter: Baroque Heritage as Materiality and Biography in Stone Town, Zanzibar.’ Vienna Working Papers in Ethnography (VWPE no. 9). https://ksa.univie.ac.at/fileadmin/user_upload/i_ksa/PDFs/Vienna_Working_Papers_in_Ethnography/vwpe09.pdf

Gupta, Pamila (2020). ‘Of Sky, Water and Skin: Photographs from a Zanzibari Darkroom’ Kronos 46 (November), 266-280.

http://www.scielo.org.za/scielo.php?script=sci_issuetoc&pid=0259-019020200001&lng=en&nrm=iso

Gupta, Pamila (2021). ‘Moving Still: Bicycles in Ranchhod Oza’s Photographs of 1950s Stone Town (Zanzibar), Journal of African Cinema (forthcoming).

Samuelson, Meg. ‘Producing a world of remains in Indian Ocean Africa: Discrepant time, melancholy affect and the subject of transport in Capital Art Studio, Stone Town, Zanzibar’. African Studies 75.2 (2016): 233-256. https://doi.org/10.1080/00020184.2016.1182318

Samuelson, Meg ‘“You’ll never forget what your camera remembers”: image-things and changing times in Capital Art Studio, Zanzibar’. Critical Arts: South-North Cultural and Media Studies 32.1 (2018): 75-91. https://doi.org/10.1080/02560046.2018.1431300

Samuelson, Meg and Gupta, Pamila. ‘Moving Frames and Circulating Subjects: Reflections on Capital Art Studio, Zanzibar’. Indian Ocean Circulations and Representations. Ed Ana Mafalda Leite and Marta Banasiak. Bern: Peter Lang. Forthcoming.

All photos © Capital Art Studio, reproduced with the permission of Rohit Oza

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