115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Colonial Algeria through the French Imperial Lens

Leonard Koos, University of Mary Washington

This paper considers the visual rhetorical strategies employed by nineteenth-century French colonial photographers when representing native Algerian woman. Specifically, this paper will examine two frequently represented Algerian colonial "types" -  the mauresque and the Ouled Naïl woman - in the context of the late-nineteenth-century photographically illustrated postcard.


By the end of the nineteenth century, the French presence in North Africa, having begun with the 1830 Conquest of Algiers, had evolved from a proposition of military occupation to one of colonial administration and residency.  As a result, emerging French colonial culture in Algeria ceaselessly enacted the contested values arising from the power relations between colonizer and colonized.  This paper proposes to examine how photography in the colony, particularly in the form of the illustrated postcard, constituted a contested space in French colonial representation.  To this end, my paper will analyze the ways by which colonial photographers employed a complicated rhetoric of clothing and accessories when representing two popularly depicted female colonial types:  the Algiers mauresque and the women of the Ouled Naïl tribe.  In terms of the Algiers mauresque (a vague term generally referring to middle- and upper-class indigenous women of Algerian or Spanish-Moorish origin), I will discuss on how colonial photographers represented their public dress, specifically the haïk (the Algerian version of the veil) and the sarouel ezzenqua (the voluminous harem pants worn in public that had become fashionable in the second half of the century).  An analysis of these images demonstrates how photographers constructed figures of sexualized mystery only to subsequently demystify those representations by revealing the woman beneath in an exposition of the inter-workings of these articles of clothing.  For the images of the women of the southern Algerian Ouled Naïl tribe, famous for their sensual dances and frequently associated in colonial culture with prostitution, colonial photographers resorted to the common practice of excessively adorning their subjects with a heteroclite mix of clothes and accessories from different tribes and regions.  The excess of signifiers, in both clothes and jewelry, not only fetishistically marked these photographed women as quintessentially “exotic,” but also visually performed an objectification of them as they become pure surfaces in the dehumanizing analogy established between the objects they wear and their alteritous and subaltern status as the colonial subjects. The representational strategies associated with the clothes and accessories of the Algiers mauresque and the Ouled Naïl women reveal how colonial photographers, rather than ethnographically documenting the existence of their subjects, “stage” the colonized woman according to elaborate orientalist constructs of desire and control.  In the end, the centrality of sartorial codes in the signifying practices of French colonialism in North Africa underscores how political regimes through their appropriations and manipulations of established signifiers, discursively exercise their power over systems of meaning.