Sarah Waiswa’s exhibition challenges the colonial gaze

Lips Touched with Blood, the photographer’s solo show in Bristol, uses new and archive imagery to address the impact of colonialism on identity in Kenya

Documentary and portrait photographer Sarah Waiswa, who is based in Nairobi, is exhibiting a new body of work that sits contemporary portraits in dialogue with images drawn from the British Empire and Commonwealth Collection at Bristol Archives, which were mainly taken by British travellers.

Waiswa replaces the figures in the archive images with flat silhouettes. Rather than censure or a removal of identity, the edits intend to form a protective layer, redressing the imbalance between the person behind and in front of the lens. “By blacking-out the subjects, I interrupt the colonial gaze and take the power away from the photographer,” the artist said in a statement.

Top: An educated Kikuyu (Elspeth Huxley, 1937). Above: Robert, my boy (Charles Trotter, 1953). All archival images © British Empire and Commonwealth Collection
Randy (25 Futures Series), 2017. All contemporary portraits © Sarah Waiswa

“By juxtaposing my images of young Kenyans, I hope that the images can speak to each other. I hope that it can show a reclamation of identity. There was erasure in colonial time. This project is an attempt to reconstruct and recreate the subjects’ own identity on their own terms.”

The exhibition title, Lips Touched with Blood, stems from the original caption of an ambiguous 1953 archive image photographed following a Mau Mau cleansing ceremony after the Lari massacre. Whether the man in the image was linked to the Mau Mau or not remains unknown, however Waiswa was drawn to his powerful expression, and left his photograph unedited for the show.

Lips touched with blood (Charles Trotter, 1953)
Sam (25 Futures Series), 2017

“In the archival images, the photographers had the power to define the narrative. They presented the people in the way they saw them, and not necessarily as who they were. The Kenyans pictured are seen but not really seen,” Waiswa said.

“To me the people are subjects in someone else’s story and not their own. They are illustrations. The captions on the photos are a further expression of this perception. The colonialist’s research is more important than the person in the photo.”

Lips Touched with Blood runs at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery until October 31;