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The Surprising History Of Old-Timey Swahili Postcards

An exhibit at the Smithsonian's Museum of African Art reveals the enlightening yet troubling stories behind these turn-of-the-century souvenirs.
Postcards from World on the Horizon: Swahili Arts Across the Indian Ocean, a new exhibition at the Smithsonian's National Museum of African Art. Source: Pearl Mak/NPR

The photos are mostly of women, decked in elaborate clothing and jewelry, wearing serious or playful or romantic expressions. Many of the images have been colorized — hand-painted to bring ruby lips, golden pendants, emerald chairs to life.

These portraits were captured in photography studios throughout Kenya, Tanzania and Somalia from the 1890s to the 1920s. The images offer glimpses into the subjects' lives — and have an unusual history. Unbeknownst to the subjects, photographers often turned the negatives from private shoots into postcards for Westerners to sell or send back home as mementos from their East African trips.

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