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Visual Archives: Memory, Play, and War

Panel VI-29, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
  • Military photography played a critical role in the documentation and circulation of imagery and information about the Algerian War, an eight-year war of independence defined by guerrilla warfare and torture that officially began on November 1, 1954. The photographers documenting the war were from a variety of backgrounds. Some were French, some were from other European nations, and we know of at least one Muslim Algerian photographer. An exploration of the broad, under-explored field of military photography provides nuanced insight into the Algerian War through a variety of individual perspectives—the colonizer, the colonized, and members of the international community. This paper is organized in two main sections. In the first section, I discuss images taken by photographers working for the Service Cinématographique des Armées (SCA), the branch of the French army responsible for photographing and filming the Algerian War. Generally speaking, military photographers were charged with documenting meetings, battles, speeches, and special social occasions. However, the French military harnessed photography for more than record keeping purposes. I argue that the camera was also a means of domination and weapon of psychological warfare. In this section, I discuss images that demonstrate that the camera was an important tool for knowledge production about the revolution and helped abet the construction of false social realities that the French military advanced both locally and internationally to varying degrees of success. In the second section, I discuss the work of photographers who had access to the inner workings of the Gouvernement Provisoire de la République de l’Algérie (GPRA), the provisional government based in Tunisia, and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), the principal Algerian nationalist movement of the time. I argue that the Front de libération nationale (FLN) mobilized photography in service of the revolution in myriad ways: 1) To present a notion of Algerian nationhood that was distinctly Arabo-Islamic, highly-organized, and capable of governing itself; 2) Defend against the narrative that the Armée de libération nationale was a terrorist organization and humanize its mujahidin; 3) Encourage pan-Arab, pan-African, and Third World solidarity; 4) To commemorate and venerate; 5) Construct, as the French did, its own false social realities; 6) Record individual experiences and private moments. These details go to show that not only did Algerian revolutionaries have a highly sophisticated relationship with the camera, but a deeply personal one too.
  • Following Egypt's independence in 1919 and up to the early Mubarak period in the 1980s, a new post-colonial state emerged that increasingly looked to science, the law, culture, and the built environment to regulate and modernize its subjects. During this time, coastal developments for leisure were identified as a testing ground for modern design and social progress. "Testing Waters and Oils: Constructions of Modernity and Post-Coloniality in Depictions of Egyptian Mediterranean Beaches, 1930-1970" reveals how artists of the time produced paintings of modern Egyptian beaches that became their political tool for imagining decolonized and/or feminist political realities. Through interviews, formal analyses, and archival research, I ask: were artists actually in tension with state claims of progress through their depictions of marginalized Bedouin communities and class-based stratification on Egypt's Mediterranean coast, or were they primarily spreading state-sanctioned ideas of modernity? In other words, are these artistic narratives serving the state's mandate or subverting it with challenges to women's societal role, for example? So far, collected data has suggested that female-depicted nudity was, in fact, serving both art critics and the state's preoccupation with social progress and the unveiling of women -- while at the same time, artists also questioned the ravages of modernity through depictions of the coast as a fragile eco-system, open to exploitation and over-development. In "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," Walter Benjamin formulates his critique of the aestheticization of politics and the politicization of aesthetics as the quintessential fascist enterprises; this critique continues to weigh heavily on attempts to connect art and politics. In this paper, I will consider the broader topic of whether art hampers political action or if it can be integral to the formulation of revolutionary perspectives.
  • This paper considers the content and form of vernacular photographs of beachgoers from the Nasser era. A striking array of leisure activities and playful poses characterize these photographs, most of which are held at the Akkasah Collection at NYU Abu Dhabi. This paper considers how these images reflect the creation of new social spaces, as well as push at the boundaries of normative behavior. These photographs represent an underutilized resource for challenging early and mid-century attempts to codify social water spaces. A broader methodological aim of this paper is to integrate vernacular photography into a spatial analysis of water leisure. Waterfronts, piers, and canals were frequent sites of social transgression, beaches were considered in popular discourse, such as magazines, as a proper alternative. These photographs provide evidence of sustained, casual and playful social interaction that disrupts an appositional definition of the beach. Indeed, as literature and film also attest, the beachfront was a liminal and flirtatious space. The water’s edge in this sense acts as a charged and productive space of mid-century self-fashioning.
  • This paper examines the narrative of Islamic art that is presented in flagship museum collections in the Arabian Gulf, with a focus on the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the Museum of Islamic Art, Doha. The narrative of Islamic art as a cohesive discipline is one that was crafted in the West, based on the Orientalist premise that Islamic cultural production is monolithic, in direct contrast to the diverse complexity of artistic traditions in the West. In this narrative, the Gulf plays little role. Not being a center of a major empire in the pre-modern period, the region does not possess the early architectural or artistic monuments that art historians favor. However, in the twentieth and twenty first century, the center of gravity for collecting and displaying Islamic art, as well as modern and contemporary art of the Middle East, has shifted to the Gulf, which proclaims itself as the inheritor of these traditions, even though none of the canonical works of art were produced there. This paper explores what happens when the problematic stories we tell as art historians become adopted by a country for its own national identity. It argues that in the ongoing quest to find a balance between local and global identities to serve the multi-national populations of the Arabian Gulf, a reliance on Islamic artistic forms shifts the center of gravity in a global historical narrative away from the West toward the Islamic world, thereby fundamentally altering the discourse of Orientalism while relying on its foundational narratives.