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Visual and Aural Histories of (De)Colonization in North Africa

Panel II-7, sponsored byAmerican Institute of Maghrib Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel explores decolonization through the study of the visual, aural, and lived environments of North Africa during the twentieth century. Decolonization is not a well-defined historical phenomenon. Initially used to describe a political process—the emergence of a self-governing, independent state from colonial rule—soon the term extended to include all elements of the colonial experience: the economic, social, cultural, psychological, aesthetic, etc. Like all globalized concepts, the term also resists a neat temporal and spatial definition, suggesting that decolonization is not a fixed moment in time and place but rather a process with an ambiguous beginning, end, and locus. The papers presented here will examine a range of media that ‘lived through’ the twentieth century to consider the period not as a set of disparate historical entities, but as a continuous sensory landscape wherein images, architecture, and sound—as much as politicians—competed to define a country’s past, present, and future. The panel begins with the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). The first panelist will discuss the role of photography in the anti-colonial movement during the Algerian War and how selected images have been mobilized after the war to tell distinct histories of decolonization. The second panelist, whose work also examines the role of photography in revolutionary Algeria, homes in on Mohamed Kouaci, one of the very few Algerian photographers to document the war as well as the first years of the new Algerian nation (1962-1965). Panelist 2 argues that Kouaci’s visual oeuvre provides a complex vision of Algerian nation-making and remains essential in understanding the major political currents that traverse and define Algeria today. Turning to Tunisia and the built environment, the third panelist will discuss three major works of late modern architecture in downtown Tunis that demonstrate the status afforded to tourism by the postcolonial state. The paper interrogates decolonization and identity in a country in which unique architectures of tourism simultaneously reflected and inspired particular socio-cultural and political conditions of post-coloniality. Panelist four will examine the anticolonial praxis developed by the Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg), the indigenous peoples of the Sahel-Sahara that find themselves torn across five distinct state territories: Mali, Niger, Algeria, present-day Burkina Faso, and Libya. Panelist four’s paper expands this panel beyond the visual to encompass aural and literary forms and argues that the autocratic rule of newly formed ‘post-colonial’ nation-states was a mere extension of the colonial paradigm.
Art/Art History
  • In the decades since independence from France in 1956, tourism in Tunisia has been both a facilitator of modernization through national exposure, investments, and built environments, and, in turn, a reflection of the country’s modernity. Although the country’s popular seaside hotels and cultural heritage industries have received limited scholarly attention, its postcolonial urban tourism infrastructure has been largely overlooked. Indeed, Tunisia’s lucrative tourism sector and its dedication to architectural modernism intersected at the epicenter of its capital city, just twelve kilometers from its Mediterranean coast. This paper presents three major works of late modern architecture in downtown Tunis that demonstrate the status afforded to tourism by the postcolonial state and the complexities of its engagement with outsiders in a globalizing context. The structures — the Corbusian Ministry of Tourism building (begun prior to independence), the glass-clad Hotel Africa tower, and the expressive Brutalist Hôtel du Lac — materialized the modernist impulses of an independent Tunisia that, under the leadership of Habib Bourguiba, sought to balance sovereignty, development, modernization, and a progressive Arab-Islamic identity through Western-oriented tourism. They were products of global economies and creative circles, and were “locally” situated through the incorporation of tapestries, mosaics, and bas-relief sculptures designed by several of Tunisia’s most prominent artists. As landmarks on the city’s two primary boulevards, the buildings were inevitably encountered by visitors en route — and in revealing contrast — to the city’s iconic medina. Together they shed light on urban tourism infrastructure’s value in postcolonial Tunisia and the broader contextualization of late modern architecture in North Africa. This paper therefore facilitates deeper critical thinking about decolonization and identity in a country in which unique architectures of tourism simultaneously reflected and inspired particular socio-cultural and political conditions of postcoloniality.
  • The mid-century political discourse on the African continent appears to be largely absolved from a critique of settler colonialism, presumably because the colonizers’ departure has generated a condition that could be identified, albeit not inaccurately, as postcolonial. This paper concerns itself with liberation; it seeks to write about liberation within a socio-political milieu that is purportedly already liberated. The distinctive forms of anticolonial praxis developed by the Kel Tamasheq (Tuareg), the Indigenous peoples of the Sahel-Sahara, evinces what Robert J. C. Young had pointedly articulated about the postcolonial as simultaneously operating as the colonial. Despite, and indeed as a result of, independence from the colonists, the Kel Tamasheq find themselves torn across five distinct state territories: Mali, Niger, Algeria, present-day Burkina Faso, and Libya. In the mid-twentieth century, as colonial forces withdrew from Africa en masse, their parasitic relationship with the land was believed to have come to a close. Nevertheless, the seldom discussed case of the Kel Tamasheq, whose aspirations for Indigenous unity and sovereignty have yet to be fulfilled, exhort us to treat national liberation and Indigenous sovereignty as distinct, rather than commensurate, notions. During the surge of liberation that swept the continent in said epoch, the stark and oppressive nature of national boundaries became glaringly evident to the Kel Tamasheq. Emerged during this time was a formidable new adversary to Indigenous unity: the nation-state. This perception, in turn, gave rise to a new resistance movement, an ever-present addition to the Kel Tamasheq social stratum. Dubbed the ishumar, this emergent group sought to resist, sometimes with guitars, sometimes with firearms, the Balkanization of the Sahara by their respective nation-states. To conceptualize this conjuncture, I draw upon Kel Tamasheq cosmology, which tightly yokes together land, bodies, and language, and argue that the political project of the ishumar, the teshumara, was an ineluctable outcome of their land-based philosophy in action. This paper therefore presents a study on the ishumar's decolonial repertoire, encompassing their novel aural and poetic expressions, to demonstrate that the autocratic rule of the newly formed nation-states was a mere extension of the colonial paradigm.
  • This paper will explore how photography was used by different groups during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-62) and how selected images have been mobilised after the war to tell distinct histories of decolonisation. The central question that this research seeks to answer concerns the uses of visual representation to navigate the complex mnemonic landscape after the war. The paper will look at the “afterlives” of a range of photographs, trying to understand why certain images have become emblematic of this prolific war of decolonisation while others have become side-lined. Of particular interest is why certain cultural institutions, publishing houses, and artists in Algeria, France, and internationally continue to foreground the work of European photographers at the expense of Algerian ones. The paper will argue that images from the war are reanimated to respond to the distinct needs and demands of the present, be it to draw attention to historical collections held in people’s homes, diplomatic agendas, or personal reckonings with a traumatic past. Crucially, this paper will foreground how different actors relate to and decide to picture a past that is foundational to Algerian nationhood through visual representation. By adopting theoretical perspectives from art history and visual anthropology concerning the social biographies of photographs, the paper will trace the multiple appropriations, recontextualizations, and layered meanings of images. Drawing on archival research and oral history, it will explore how photographic images are integral to the processes of memory formation and the narratives created about the distant past. This research is of relevance not only to scholars of visual culture and histories of decolonisation, but also to museum curators and keepers of collections. It can influence the choices made when displaying photographs pertaining to the Algerian War of Independence, as well as to other anti-colonial and liberation movements in North Africa and globally.
  • In this paper, I center the Algerian Revolution from a visual lens, arguing alongside Daho Djerbal that Algerian nationalists produced images that contributed to shaping their self-image after 130 years during which photography, and visual production, was an overwhelmingly French affair. Simultaneously, Algerian visual production became a major strategic tool countering France’s colonial grip, garnering domestic and international support for Independence. What can be learned about this role of photography by looking at the work of Mohamed Kouaci, one of a handful of Algerian photographers to document the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962) on the FLN (Front de libération nationale) side? In Tunisia, Kouaci was Head of the photography service at the Information Ministry of the GPRA (Gouvernement Provisoire de la République Algérienne) and photo editor of the FLN newspaper El Moudjahid (1958-1962). His work, I argue, produced mainly in Tunisia, in close proximity with Algerian rebels, displaced villagers and orphaned children, offers rich, layered and complex visions of an Algerian Nation in the making that complicate and destabilize single hegemonic narratives of the Revolution. After reading attentively a selection of Kouaci images of Algerian refugees returning from Tunisia in 1962 and the first days of Independence in Algiers, I move on to juxtapose the photographs of this return to the first images produced by the French during their 1830 invasion of Algeria. Borrowing from Zarobell and Azoulay, I read these same images against panorama drawings by French officer and painter, Jean-Charles Langlois. By comparing Kouaci’s multiplicity of points-of-views to Langlois’ attempt at suturing fragmented images into a seamless unique point-of-view through his panoramas, I center the question of visuality within colonial conquest by reading together two moments in Algerian history when new national representations are produced visually. I argue that the multi-layered photographer-militant’s work of Kouaci offers a strategy of visual liberation, in contrast to the officer-panoramist, Langlois, bound to create a tangible Algerian reality for a craving French audience, bringing the visual conquest of Algeria in the heart of Paris. I close by demonstrating how a more in-depth analysis of Kouaci’s visual production, both situated within and read apart from the FLN’s grand international strategy, expands our understanding of visuality producing both central and peripheral, perhaps more radical, possibilities for a new Algeria, many still available to explore in an ongoing struggle for true decolonization.