A narrative reflective piece on how Zambia Belonging came to be.

By Sana Ginwalla

I had written this in April 2019, before returning to study in Cape Town. I was feeling the remnants of a sort of interruption and incompletion of a story that I had started with Lusaka in the previous year. 

Having started Everyday Lusaka in March 2018, I had spent most of that year exploring Lusaka in a language I knew best with the observant tool that I never tire of using. My eyes had become accustomed to seeing Lusaka through the photographs I made of it. At home, in town, on walks, with friends. The city and I tangoed together. It told me stories about itself while I learnt about my own. The warm afternoons spent loafing around on quiet and busy roads with a camera around my neck would attract a kind of suspicious attention that I was never previously familiar with. Still, it was not usually the people my camera was gravitating towards; it was the banal corners and shadows that – like parts of my identity and mind – my eyes never glanced towards before.

However, as my Honours in Curatorship at UCT began in January 2019, my dance with Lusaka’s shadows were put on hold. My love and obsession for Lusaka was tended through other people’s previous imaginations of it. Discarded, damaged, found, lost, uncollected, old and faded – photographs and memories that weren’t mine filled my time. 

For most of us these treasured memories are held close – often in the pocket of our wallets or framed on our the living room walls or in a photo box somewhere in our homes. However, in this case, the photographs were found somewhere far away from those who recorded them. They were scattered between rusted steel boxes and wrinkled envelopes and dusty cardboard boxes in the attic of Fine Art Studios on Chachacha Road, Lusaka. And yet, each found torn paper, damaged photograph and dusty negative has a priceless value in tracing a sketch of the city’s intimate and unseen histories.

My first ever visit to Fine Art Studios was in April 2018 to buy some film camera batteries. What I saw on display when I entered, is what eventually drew me to visit their attic months later. In the glass cabinets of this studio-turned-stationery-and-office-goods-store, were portraits of people, hairstyles and fashions long gone. The works of renowned photographers like Malick Sidibe, Seydou Keita and James Barnor immediately came to mind. I was ecstatic to see that Zambia had its own collection of similar images.

Seeing how light-damaged the photographs already were and recognizing the value in these photographs, I wanted to preserve these rarities – locate the negatives or at least scan the prints. I had no idea what I was going to do with these images, for whom or for what, I primarily saw that these photographs were rare, and therefore needed to be preserved.

After several months of building a relationship with the studio, I made arrangements to see their attic to possibly purchase any old cameras or photographs that I found. Crouched down on that warm Sunday afternoon in October 2018, under the single tungsten bulb that lit dusty shelves and boxes, around 600 negatives, slides and prints were unearthed. Some of the negatives were water damaged or scratched or bitten, enclosed in crumpled envelopes or wrapped in discoloured papers.

As the dust on my fingers thickened, the neglection of these photographs became more apparent. There were black and white negatives and prints of formal and close to stoic studio photographs. On the other hand, colour slides revealed candid images of families at parties and on holidays, who were able to record their own memories; outlining the disparities that occur according to class even in memory-making. Others – though wrapped in torn invoices and held together by worn out rubber bands – were found in their orange Kodak slide boxes, safe from all the heat and dust of the attic. Despite the condition and context in which these items were found, there was something gripping about it all.

Being a miner of memory myself, I am far too familiar with that insatiable longing of the past – to a time when I rocked the mushroom cut and didn’t know a thing about the world, or when I wasn’t born yet and my father had all his dark hairs, or when his father still had teeth. I would (and still) sometimes spend hours satisfying my yearning to see old family pictures. My dad was a keen photographer and not only did he document key moments of our lives growing up, he also meticulously took time to scan many of the prints.

Our box of photographs (that I once spent an afternoon reorganizing and labelling when I was 13) is one that has played a critical role in how I understand myself and my heritage. I started to ponder about my identity politics: how do we know what we know? Who am I and where do I come from? What led us here and how has that shaped who I am now?

When seeing those photographs there in the attic of the photo-studio, uncollected and forgotten by their rightful owners, there was a sense of a disconnected or second-hand nostalgia – an understanding of what might be felt if those in the photograph were to see these images now. If I cherished my own family photographs so much, and if they have played such a key role in understanding my own sense of belonging, identity and family history, how could these memories possibly be left here to perish? How could I possibly prevent that from happening for someone else’s found belongings?

I collected these photographs in October of 2018, around the same time that I was applying for the Curatorship program. My research proposal was centred around this found collection, and by early 2019 I was at The Centre for Curating the  Archive at UCT working to have the collection digitised to facilitate an online repatriation of the found photographs. Part of the collection was later exhibited (virtually and physically) as part of my research and thesis entitled The Studio Stool This year in 2021, to allow the collection enough space, freedom and capacity to become much more than a project that existed in an academic context, Everyday Lusaka worked to launch and rename The Studio Stool to Zambia Belonging While the Fine Art Studios collection inaugurated the archive, there are around 800 more photographs that have been digitally collected so far, 500 of which we have collected under Zambia Belonging over the past two months. Zambia Belonging grows with contributions of images that mean something to people that have any sort of relationship with Zambia. The project is about exploring the possibilities around how images can build a sense of identity and belonging – not just to Zambia but to oneself and ones heritage and family. We wish to evoke the sense that the image is not the consequence of this project, but really, it is where everything begins.

If it isn’t obvious enough, I’m a lover of memories even if they aren’t mine. For me, the thing that facilitated this love was that box of photographs containing memories that my family was privileged enough to have documented and preserved for so long. The photographs found in Zambia Belonging are reminiscent of memories that are not mine; in a country that isn’t quite mine either. It just so happened that while my love for Lusaka began to grow through my own documentation of it, I came to encounter past documentations of it too. Now, my love for memory and my love for Lusaka tango with one another – they tell us stories about them while we learn about ours.