Barâa Arar explores how Algerian women can emerge ‘mischievous and dancing’ using postcolonial analysis to deconstruct 19th-century portrayals of the imagined harem in art
In Women in their Apartment in Algiers, Assia Djebar, a feminist Algerian writer, imagines the reconstruction and reinterpretation of the Algerian woman in contemporary visual culture. She hopes for the “glorious liberation of space where the bodies are revived in the dance, in the release of movement. For there is no longer a harem, the door is wide open and the light streams in. Even the spying servant is no more; there is simply another woman, mischievous and dancing” (p.162). Djebar’s aspiration is to move past oriental depictions of women, specifically Algerian women, to those unadulterated by the colonial male gaze.
When I first saw Eugene Delacroix’s painting Women in their Apartment in Algiers I felt the imprisonment of the harem and the oppressive male gaze. Throughout the 130 years of colonialism, French painters produced works about Algerian women, which portrayed them as subdued yet titillating. White male artists, such as Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Eugène Delacroix, depicted their idea of an Algerian woman who offers herself, without hesitation, to the consumption of the painter and the viewer—the ultimate colonial fantasy. Their works symbolize a unilateral relationship of power, reflective of the French colonial project. Artists such as Houria Niati produce art that creates a platform to negotiate latent colonial dynamics and gender inequality, which is much needed in settings plagued with these unresolved issues.
The invasion of Algiers, capital of Algeria, by French forces in 1830 marks the beginning of the political, militaristic, and social occupation of Algerian soil by France. French nationals flooded into Algeria, including many artists and writers. It is important to keep in mind that the French colonial project in Algeria was not merely economic; it was rooted in the French notion of civilizing the “other” through the indoctrination of French values. This makes Algeria’s experience unique to other French protectorates or colonies such as Tunisia or Egypt. Algeria was deeply embedded in the French political fabric, which is a major reason the War of Independence was so long and severe.
From the onset, French colonialism in Algeria was faced with cultural and armed resistance. However, in 1954, armed conflict escalated between the French Army and the National Liberation Front of Algeria (FLN). After a bloody war of six years, a ceasefire, and negotiations between the two sides, French occupation of Algeria officially ended when a referendum for independence in Algeria confirmed that Algerians overwhelmingly wanted “une Algérie Algérienne”—an Algerian Algeria. Following independence, the FLN established a one-party government and took power with the resistance leader Ahmed Ben Bella as the first president of the independent Algeria.
Immediately after the French occupation of Algeria, a variety of Algerian-inspired cultural products were imported to France. French oriental painters including Eugene Delacroix and Pierre-Auguste Renoir painted Algerian women from their own perspective—the white male colonizer. The painter-subject relationship is one of a visual power imbalance, where the identity of the subject is predicated on the fantasies of such men. Delacroix portrays the Algerian women as exclusively available to the white men who paint them and later, to those who consume them in art galleries. Malek Alloula, in The Colonial Harem, says the sole obsession of the soldier and the colonizer is to establish an orgy with native women on the territory they have conquered. In other words, the Algerian woman is not seen as an individual with agency and within her cultural context, but instead, is a commodity acquired with the colonization of land.
Algerian women’s bodies became a topographical map symbolic of the battleground available to occupation by the French colonial forces. In Delacroix’s work, the two figures in the middle do not acknowledge the audience, one has her back to us, and the other who lies on the very left holds soft eye contact as she opens her body to us. She is reminiscent of Titian’s iconic Venus of Urbino (below). Delacroix positions her body as readily available to the viewer. Her eyes say “come hither.” The women’s dress is ornamental and their actions frivolous. The warmth of the painting gives it a dream-like, fantastical aesthetic.
Another example of the oriental fantasy is Renoir’s painting Parisian Women in Algerian Costume. Renoir finished this painting in 1878 and did not visit Algeria until 1881. This gap in firsthand experience reveals how his ideas of Algerian culture were imported and imagined. Even from the title of this painting, the appropriation of identity symbolized through Parisian women wearing “Algerian” costume is abstracted from its original religious, political, social, and economic setting. The act of wearing the clothes of another culture is not inherently problematic; however, such an act in the context of political and economic colonization becomes a manifestation of colonialism. All the women in this painting avoid eye contact. They are void of any sense of individualism. Their bodies are available to the viewer for carnivorous consumption.
In these two examples, the cultural appropriation and political agenda manifest on women’s bodies, removes the women’s agency and their historical context. However, art can also be a democratic platform through which we can subvert and re-appropriate dominant colonial narratives. Instead of a unilateral relationship between painter and subject, the reinterpretation of nuanced and complex identities in postcolonial settings can involve more participatory acts, in which everyone is seen and has the right to be seen. The distance between agent (the painter) and a subject is comfortable. I believe orientalist paintings are predicated on the same tactics of distancing in which an exotic place and its people are consumed but abstracted from a nuanced and complex reality.
However, art can also be an aesthetic experience that values everyone and their contributions to the political sphere. In return, individuals form an attachment to such a space. Art allows a member of the community to see beyond their individual existence and associate themselves with a cross-generational political community.
In the French Algerian context, the French colonial agenda purposefully and forcibly removed the experience of the collective attachment of the physical space. The unifying aspects of Algerian communities were removed such as expressions of culture, the Arabic language, and visual and musical vocabulary. Those born into a colonial context are born into a milieu void of attachment to Algerian land, culture, and people. The removal of cultural authenticity is in itself a violent colonial act.
The sense of socio-political continuity is removed in the context of colonialism and is reflected in the production of colonial art. The painter always possesses the power of representation and thus eliminates the sense of membership and agency of the community members. Yet, if we pierce that comfortable distance and create art that engages with complex realities, makes us uncomfortable, and induces active participation of the viewer, we can begin to negotiate the intersection of post-colonial trauma, gender inequality, and diasporic challenges. The artistic space provides a possibility for resistance and facilitates an attachment to something bigger than oneself. It provides the space to heal and negotiate seemingly opposing aspects of one’s life. The comfortable distance previously instated recedes.
It is possible to see these dynamics at play in Houria Niati’s work. Niati is an Algerian artist who grew up in French occupied Algeria and resisted colonialism through street art and graffiti in her adolescence. She lives in London now, her work influenced by both European and Arab-Andalusian aesthetics. Her work No To Torture is part of her collection “identity search” and directly subverts Delacroix’s Women in their Apartment. For Niati, the layers of heritage and identity are complex and nuanced. She remembers being taught by the French establishment in Algeria that she was French. The legacy of the pervasive French regime is one that attempted to transform the colonized into the crypto colonizer. The systemic French oppression removed the Algerian’s identity as victim and replaced it with the identity of oppressor of one’s own people. Through the orientalist art and French campaigns of “deveiling”, women and their bodies were a central battleground for these agendas.
In No To Torture, Niati disfigures the characters of Delacroix to show the suffering of the women under colonialism and the violence and social inequality, which ensued. She rejects the sensuous secluded veiled women of Delacroix and Renoir. Niati’s women are silhouettes, empty and inhuman. Her women are digitized and her colour palette unnaturally cool. She purposefully X-s out their faces and even removes the face of the blue figure to highlight the dehumanization of these women.
In Delacroix’s work, the women are supposedly in the private sphere, something he had absolutely no access to, so that his imagination of a harem caters to his male fantasies. Conversely, Naiti places her women in an abstracted space to show the violent domination of land and the way the French portrayed women outside of their context. Her painting represents the consequences of Delacroix’s work and, more broadly, the repercussions of colonialism. She starkly portrays the removal of personal identity, the abstraction from context, the lack of belonging. Unlike a one-way relationship between painter and subject, Niati’s work incites a conversation and the viewer’s participation. Her piece does not accept the visual as truth, much like the vraisemblance of orientalist French art.
This invitation to critical participation is especially significant in a postcolonial word. Today, in Europe and North America, there is a real threat from right-wing anti-immigration policies and heightened xenophobia. Diasporas are struggling with (as well as drawing from) the challenges of cultural hybridity and there is clear marginalization of second and third generation immigrants. French-born citizens with Algerian backgrounds have to deal with compounded identities, which are not easy to negotiate – how does a colonized people negotiate the reality of being in the land of their colonizer?
The questions are just as relevant where I live in Canada, a country of migrants with a colonial history that is celebrating 150 years since its Confederation. The issue is two-pronged here. In Canada, we belong to a country with many diaspora communities, many of whom were displaced as direct or indirect consequences of colonialism. The land we live on is also unceded from our Indigenous nations. Are we living out institutional colonialism everyday? What is an immigrant’s complicity with this settler colonialism?
Art can help us to negotiate these layered histories and relations of power. The hope is that we may emerge out of the simplified and diluted depictions of who we believe ourselves to be and fulfil the aspiration to be mischievous and dancing women.
This essay is adapted from a presentation I gave at the Carleton University’s Zelikovitz Centre for Jewish Studies Colloquium on Gender, Identity, and Diaspora on May 1, 2017 in Ottawa, Canada.
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Barâa Arar loves stories; she believes everyone has a narrative and we should all lend our ears to hear it. She studies Humanities and Art History at Carleton University in Canada. She co- hosts The Watering Hole Podcast where she tells many of her tales. You can find more of her work at: livewellspoken.com, on Facebook, and on Twitter and Instagram @livewellspoken.
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