Halida Boughriet, Mémoire dans l’oubli, 2010, photograph, 150 x 100 cm each, © Halida Boughriet, © ADAGP, Paris
For the Algerian exhibition L’art au féminin, the curator and art historian Nadira Laggoune has had a few reservations about the types of assignments and the pigeonholing with which women artists hailing from the Maghreb have to deal: “‘Ethnic’ belonging, the fact of being an Arab, rarely avoids the prejudices associated with representation, which often come across through stereotypes to do with the sempiternal issues of religion, social and sexual taboos, and other current substitutes for orientalist imagery. […] This is the worry shared by many of today’s Arab artists who work in Europe and in the West in a general way, and are afraid of a perception of their works that is invariably sullied by exotic curiosity. So they want to be regarded for what they do and not for what they are”.1
Recent visual works by contemporary artists are shifting the representation of the female figure in Algeria away from a certain historical conception of the body as object of desire, coveted and confined within the trite seraglio of the collective imagination. Thus, these works attempt to transcend this victim or subject-object role by viewing Algerian women as actors in a history of emancipation.
In 2009, as Nadja Makhlouf (born 1981) was planning a documentary triptych about the condition of women in Algeria, the artist wished to establish the words and visibility of Algerian women by adopting the form of a circuit through the territory – from Kabylie to the Capital, and onward into the desert. Her aim was thus to present a series of portraits rich in the social history of contemporary “Algerian Algeria”, in the subtleties of specific narratives focusing on “today’s youth and women […] in order to de-crystallize the image that people might have here [in France]”.2
Nadja Makhlouf, « Zohra Slimi, née le 07 juillet 1936 à la Casbah (Alger) Couseuse de drapeaux », De l’invisible au visible, Moujadhida, Femme combattante, 2011-2014, extract, photographs and short film, 60 x 80 cm, © Nadja Makhlouf
Nadja Makhlouf, « Gylberte Sportisse, née le 17 septembre 1936 à Alger. Militante communiste algéroise », De l’invisible au visible, Moujadhida, Femme combattante, 2012-2014, extract, photographs and short film, 60 x 80 cm, © Nadja Makhlouf
For an initial documentary project, which dealt with three generations of women in Kabylie3 and had been initially conceived as a fictional piece, she gathered the unedited words, descriptions of the experiences, and the photographic portraits of several Kabylian women, which she captioned, because “people need to know who is in front of them, and what they do”. This first part, eventually made up of a series of photographs titled Femmes fatales (2011) and the film Allah Ghaleb, would lead to a second, originally devoted to the women of Algiers – women who live in a place at the centre of political life. But her encounters with Kabylian women, her readings in socio-historical sources about the war of independence – from which women combatants seem to have been excised4 – and her confrontation with images of “women fantasized by colonial photography”5, all drove her to create the photographic series De l’invisible au visible. Moudjahida, femme combattante (2011-2014) and prompted her to shift from video to photography.6 The principle behind this series follows a plural time-frame: N. Makhlouf produced a diptych by collecting a personal archival image of each of these women during the war of independence, and compared it with a photographic portrait made at the moment of her encounter with the artist. The two images, separated by five decades, describe individual commitments, rendered explicit by biographical notices slipped into the arrangement, and entrenched from the war of national liberation to the social history of women in the present day. Over and above the implicit hierarchies imposed by historiographical constructs, N. Makhlouf collects the words of women active during the revolution to differing degrees, many of whom have remained anonymous. The itineraries of these women – nurses, typists, bomb-makers, demonstrators, psychologists, gynaecologists – seem to sketch other visual and popular narratives, all while referring to and re-incorporating those who have been forgotten by traditional history. During the construction of the this collection, N. Makhlouf, who had initially wanted to focus her project on Algerian women who exuded their Algerian identities, was swiftly confronted by moudjahidate (women combatants) with plural identities, whose inclusion broadens the framework of her original intent, attesting to an internationalization within the freedom movement: “I discovered that these women were not only Algerians… But French, Swiss, Spanish… and that they were of every faith”.7 To enter the bodies of these narratives, to give name to and to situate things in past and present, to discern bodies in the black and white space of the photograph: all of these factors dislocates certain persistent stereotypes, giving place to a plurality of specific figures, which enriches the macro-history, but also disorients it. This photographic series produced by N. Makhlouf was exhibited in 2013 together with portraits of Algerian women made by Marc Garanger in 1960; it seems to sketch a counter-proposal to those images of women, whose veils were forcibly removed by the French army, by slipping into the public space these “photobiographies” of the women involved in the independence movement. Between March 1960 and February 1962, M. Garanger was a young French photographer called to the Algerian front, where, for the French army, he took portraits of the “indigenous” civilian population, part of a program to establish a system of identity cards.8 During this endeavour, M. Garanger made the women remove their veils, and captured intimate portraits, “on the fly”, of each one of them. The dark glances of some of them in front of the soldier-photographer speaks volumes about colonial domination, and, deep in their eyes staring into the lens, one seems to glimpse the dawning of an inner revolt. The success of these photos, displayed in many publications (in the press and in books)9 and many exhibitions, has turned them into a reference point in the iconography of Algerian women. This accession to posterity has been conveyed by the inclusion of the photographs in the collective international memory, and has, in particular, culminated in the remaking of the images by other artists, including in a series of portraits painted by Dalila Dalléas Bouzar.
Dalila Dalléas Bouzar, Princesse 4, 2015-2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 40cm, © Dalila Dalléas Bouzar
Dalila Dalléas Bouzar, Princesse 7, 2015-2016, oil on canvas, 50 x 40cm, © Dalila Dalléas Bouzar
In 2015, Dalila Dalléas Bouzar (born in 1974) re-appropriated M. Garanger’s photographs to produce the Princesse series, a re-interpretation that takes the form of oil-on-canvas portraits. In this work, the artist wished to both “pay tribute” to the women, and “get them out of the role of victim”10 by depicting them on a black background from which the outlines of their faces emerge, sometimes tattooed and adorned with richly gilded finery. These princesses, powerful women, emerging from the colonial oppression in which the photographs had caught them, represented, for the painter, an artistic space whose historical context is re-arranged based on the ideas of the philosopher Hannah Arendt—to whom the artist refers in a note of intent accompanying the work11—in a place of renewed and deep-rooted visual history, in which the artist can “consider herself” in the present. Taking a distance from the violence of the circumstances in which these photos were taken, she magnifies and reworks these effigies, restoring dignity to these forcibly unveiled women, who now stare at the onlooker, male or female, from the loftiness of these new enthroned portraits.
In 2012, for the 50th anniversary of the Evian Accords, the Institut des cultures d’Islam, in Paris, exhibited a series of photographs by Halida Boughriet (born 1980) titled Mémoires dans l’oubli (2011). This series used the principle of (mis)appropriation. The odalisque – a reference point within the orientalist aesthetic – is thus deconstructed to transform the body-as-object of the colonial imagination into an active and challenging social subject. Former moudjahidate are photographed slumped in the sofa of an oriental-style contemporary drawing-room. These elderly women, shown in the confinement of a household interior, retain a memorial knowledge whose presence is given material form by the light haloing the outlines of their faces. Here they seem to be waiting to be brought back to life before time forever imprisons their words in the antechamber of history. The weight of the male painter’s gaze, constructed during the colonial period, has frozen these Algerian women in a lascivious pose: they are assigned to be a metonymy of the territory to be conquered, to be confined, and to be silent, due to the long-term denial of their very access to words, and of their involvement in the social world.12 In these works, it seems that orientalist aesthetics and the colonial referent attached to the Algerian female figure must be exorcised in order to allow entry into the social history of the country, through figures of women who bear witness and admonish, all of them silenced.
Zineb Sedira, Gardiennes d’images, détail, 2010, video installation, production Sam Art Project, deposit from Centre national des arts plastiques to musée national d’Art moderne Centre Pompidou, © Zineb Sedira, © ADAGP, Paris, © Cnap, © Photo: André Morin
Marwa Arsanios, Have you ever killed a bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2013-2014, video still, HD video, 25’, © Marwa Arsanios
Marwa Arsanios, Have you ever killed a bear? Or Becoming Jamila, 2013-2014, video still, HD video, 25’, © Marwa Arsanios
Another 2011 piece, produced by Zineb Sedira (born 1963), brings back the forgotten photos of the Algerian photographer Mohamed Kouaci, which nevertheless offer rare representations of women in military uniform in the maquis. This video installation titled Gardiennes d’images reveals the work of Safia Kouaci, the photographer’s widow and associate, who methodically keeps her husband’s visual archives, which Algerian institutions, at the moment of the production of this filmed oral testimony, seemed to know nothing about, or to purposely ignore. The artist, herself a “guardian of images” in this process of revealing archives that are absent from the collective memory, retraces a visual history of the country from which emerge the faces of three revolutionary female icons: Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired, and Baya Hocine. Official history has in fact brought forth the faces of certain militant women (bomb-makers, FLN liaison agents…), whose portraits had been disseminated in the media, at the time of their arrests and trials, but also by way of the works of artists all over the world engaged with their liberation (Pablo Picasso, Inji Efflatoun, Robert Lapoujade…). The international fame of some of them, including Djamila Bouhired, has catapulted them to the ranks of revolutionary icons, and has endured in cinematographic depictions of the war (especially in the films Djamila l’Algérienne, by Youssef Chahine in 1958, and La Bataille d’Alger by Gillo Pontecorvo in 1966). In the present day, it through these film sources that contemporary artists are directly re-questioning the construction of revolutionary female icons in the Arab world, and the social status of women. In the video Have You Ever Killed a Bear? or Becoming Jamila (2014)13, the artist Marwa Arsanios (born 1978) questions the process by which the female combatant becomes an icon, and creates a tension among the fiction, re-interpretation and reality on which the history of these women and collective memories are formed. By re-enacting the scenes of G. Pontecorvo’s La Bataille d’Alger, with which she mixes the circulation of the images of revolutionary women in the Arab world, M. Arsanios intermingles narrative, dialogues and both fictional and real testimony. Becoming Jamila thus becomes a critical concept, incarnated by the artist as Jamila, who foils the story of an iconization, in which the name “Jamila” replaces that of all the other individuals, in favour of a controlled political construct. Models of revolutionary female resistance in the Arab world are thus set aside to be questioned, and so that we can re-appropriate them for ourselves in the present, beyond all forms of exploitation.
In 1957, Frantz Fanon wrote: “And first of all the famous status of the Algerian woman, her claimed confinement, her radical removal, her humility, her silent existence verging on quasi-absence […]. Such assertions, illuminated by ‘scientific studies’, are today receiving the only valid protest: the revolutionary experience”.14
When all is said and done, it remains disturbing that the observation formulated by Fanon still resonates with these women artists, who assert the impetuous need to construct other visual and social incarnations of Algerian women, to parry the violence of silence and deconstruct the burden of an iconography laden with historical and political oppression. These artistic reworkings thus open onto critical fragments, reminding us that the ambiguous depiction of the female in the visual arts continues to challenge the meanings foisted on the “weak sex” too long rendered submissive by the image and erased from the history of men.
Émilie Goudal is a historian of art and author of a thesis to be published in end 2018, Presses du réel, under the title Des damné(e)s de l’histoire. Les arts visuels face à la guerre d’Algérie. Member of the collective “Globalisation, art et prospective” (GAP-INHA), she is currently a fellow of the Gerda Henkel Stiftung / LabexMed at the Centre Norbert Elias (EHESS-CNRS) in Marseille. Her research focuses on the interpenetrations between arts, history, politics and issues of memory (Germany, Algeria, France), but also on the critical writing of the history of art in France since the context of decolonisation. She has published several articles on these subjects, including “Frantz Fanon iconique ? Pensées à voir, l’Algérie de Fanon dans les arts visuels”, published in the review Perspective, 2017/2, p. 211-220.