A Colonial Harem

Last week, I wrote about the controversial picture of Cherid Barkaoun. Someone emailed me with another episode in the Algerian history that was intertwined with photography and here it is:

In 1987, Malek Alloula, an Algerian poet who lives in France published a book called, The Colonial Harem. The book was a collection of postcards that displayed an Africa that never was–an Africa of European imagination, an Africa of exotic dancers and nubile odalisques.

Alloula arranged the postcards in an increasing order of explicitness, ending his book with an ”anthology of breasts”: women, naked to the waist, accompanied by captions like ”Want to party, honey?” or ”Oh! Is it ever hot!” or ”The Cracked Jug.” Many postcards supposedly displaying Algeria of that time composed of women in elaborately draped trousers, embroidered vests, exorbitant beads and jewelled turbans. They posed on divans and carpets with cigarettes in their hands, shackles on their feet.

For 30 years at the beginning of this century, these cards were brought onto the European market by photographers like the Swiss Jean Geyser. They transmitted back a message of superiority, and of exotic details of the African interior to Europe. They served as surrogates for the need for political and military conquest and for further investments in the French colonial ventures in Africa. Alloula does not focus on the biographies of the models (most of them were nameless anyway) or their reasons for posing, but instead on the oppression, violence and degradation the former colonial masters brought about in Africa.

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3 thoughts on “A Colonial Harem

  1. Igor Prawn
    However much one wishes to deny interpretation as a plausible and validating measure of the injustices made by the imperialist western influence by the appropriation of the images in these postcards, the political and economical facts speak for themselves. The facts are undisputed by historians across the globe regarding the ill effects of colonialism on indigenous populations. This is a resounding issue for many westerners, the inability to think outside the proverbial box, and imagine themselves as an “other”. Perhaps this exercise would give needed enlightenment to current western social demises such as racism, oppression, war mongering, and propagating ethnic minoritory rule in foreign lands. Often the reality is not so simple to see in photos like those Malek Alloula presents in his masterful representation, but the complexity that surrounds the history speaks for itself.

  2. Malek Alloula’s description of the photos is an exercise in cliche – there’s no sign in this photo that the woman is oppressed, and she’s certainly not imaginary. What’s imagined is Alloula’s editorial appropriation of the images – he’s the one who’s added the interpretation. In doing so he’s colonised both these people and their past.

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