Flash from the past
By Katie Lin
Behind a set of imposing wooden doors and in a building teeming with antiquity, lies an invaluable collection of historical documents: photographs.
Nestled among the labyrinth of narrow streets that make up the UNESCO World Heritage site of Stone Town, Capital Art Studio literally wears the image of Zanzibar’s past but is also a treasure trove of individual histories.
I stumbled upon the studio as I haplessly wandered Stone Town one morning. Initially drawn in by the myriad of black-and-white photographs filling its windows, I somehow ended up having an impromptu studio session with the studio’s proprietor, Rohit Oza.
As I sat there on a stool with Oza’s hands cupping my shoulders for our portrait, I felt oddly
anachronistic; I smiled nonetheless and stared straight ahead as we waited for the self-timer on my camera to go off.
Maybe it was the 80-year-old faded balcony-scene screen behind me – or the 1930s children’s rocking horse in front.
Maybe it was the retro wedding portraits plastered on the studio walls – or the 19th century Arabic architecture those walls were holding up.
Photographer Rohit Oza poses with a picture of his father, Ranchhod, the original proprietor of Capital Art Studio. Photo by Katie Lin
Oza’s father, Ranchhod Oza, originally opened up shop in 1930, and apart from a 100m relocation down the street, everything – from studio props to the 1950s Kodak cardboard cutout at the door – remains the same.
“Many old people, they remember us,” Oza later explained of the business’s clientele, many of whom his late father photographed.
“Families who left the country for a long time, they’re coming back and asking for the old photographs.”
Following the Zanzibar Revolution in 1964 – just a month after Zanzibar gained independence from Britain – thousands of Arabs and Indians were killed and thousands more forced to flee the island.
But in 1992, the island ceased being a one-party state and made the transition to a multi-party political system – and now Zanzibar is seeing the return of both Arab and Indian exiles and British expats.
“I’m very interested in some of the people who are coming back and asking me for photos,” Oza says as he leafs through a box of black-and-white 8x10s.
He emerges victorious, presenting me with a photograph of a ship. He explains that a man once walked into his studio looking for pictures of a ship by the name of S.S. Said Khalifa – presumably the same ship in the photo.
The S.S. Said Khalifa belonged to Sultan Khalifa ibn Kharub, ruler of Zanzibar from 1911 to 1960, and this man’s grandfather was its captain.
“I had to print it, but I showed him the photograph the next day,” Oza explains, as he points at two blurry figures standing near the ship’s bow. “He looked at it and he said, ‘It might be my grandfather standing in the cabin.’”
As he replaces the lid on the box of 8x10s, Oza assures me that I shouldn’t expect to see much change in the future – only in hands, when he passes the business along to his photographer brother upon his retirement.
So for at least one more generation, those in possession of photographs wearing the unmistakable “Capital Art Studio” stamp need only sail off the Tanzanian coast to Stone Town shores to find their origin.