Desktop version

Home arrow Sociology arrow Orientalism Revisited: Art, Land and Voyage

Source

“One day captions will be needed”: Dennis Adams and the Getty Exhibition, Walls of Algiers

Susan Sontag informs us in her last book, Regarding the Pain of Other, that “one day captions will be needed”.39 Sontag is prescient to insist that photographs do not make us understand anything; we need historical, political, cultural contexts for understanding and these a photograph cannot provide. According to the current generation of Maghribis searching for ancestors among the vast French archive of Scenes et Types postcards, captions are needed and names are traceable. For the moment, in addition to scholarly publications, internet postings, and domestic decor items, museums are increasingly the repository for the heritage of colonial ID photographs and Scenes et Types postcards, some of which are in collections privately amassed or in the archives of North African photography studios currently deposited in museums such as the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.40 Museums accord value to these materials and include them in their displays, catalogs, and exhibitions. While ID photos and postcards emerged as a result of nineteenth-century anthropological and colonial notions of classifying and categorizing peoples, they also eerily mirror the social histories of museums as a site of collecting, classifying, display, and entertainment.

My essay concludes with a consideration of the recent Los Angeles Getty Museum exhibition (May-October 2009), The Walls of Algiers, which deployed French colonial Algerian Scenes et Types postcards and ID cards. The Getty exhibition was curated by Zeynep Celik, an architectural historian and professor at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and Frances Terpak, senior curator at the Getty Research Institute.41 My contribution to the Getty Museum exhibition was to introduce the curators to the work of American artist Dennis Adams, whom I first met during a conference in 1998 at MIT, where we both then taught. Algeria has been the focus of many projects for Adams. His artistic interrogations of post-colonial transformations in Europe and Europe’s collective amnesia about its colonial pasts launched three decades’ worth of his photography, video installations, and site-specific works in urban public locations such as bus shelters, pedestrian tunnels, street signs, and public urinals (pissoirs). Adams writes: “My idea was to crack the silence. I wanted to touch the subject of [the Algerian] war through a public intervention that went straight to the nerves.”42 One such project, rejected as controversial by the Dijon municipal authorities, envisioned publicly exhibiting the photographs that document the decolonizing processes in Algeria that led to dismantling statues of heroic French figures during the year 1962, when they were transported from Algeria to France upon Algerian independence. Among the objects presented in the Getty Walls of Algiers exhibition - another Adams effort to intervene in French-Algerian silences - was his reframing of the famous series of identity card photographs of women from the Aures region of Algeria photographed by Marc Garanger. At considerable expense, Adams purchased ten of Garanger’s ID photographs for his project entitled “Recovered 10 on 10 (Adams on Garanger)”. He summarizes his project:

Ten books were produced, each with a different portrait of an Algerian women on its back inside cover. These photographs were taken by photojournalist Marc Garanger in 1960, when he was in the French military service in Algeria. They were selected from over 2000 portraits that were ordered by military authorities for terrorist control purposes. The majority of these photographs were taken of women, all of whom were forced to remove their veils. The lower portion of each portrait has been “re-covered” with ten pages of photographs in which Adams documents social housing projects on the outskirts of various French cities. Today, many of these decaying modernist projects are occupied by Algerian immigrants, signifying the culmination of France’s turbulent history with its former colony.43

From Adams’s oeuvre of ten books, one appeared in the exhibition encased in a standard museum glass display case that permitted only a single page for display and viewing. My interest is not to unpack obvious historical and gendered ironies of Adams’s complex intervention and composite image production in which, on the one hand, a French male conscript photographer, March Garanger, unveils Algerian women forcibly photographed during a ferocious anti-colonial war in 1960 Algeria44 and, on the other hand, an American male, Dennis Adams, re-veils the same Algerian women with superimposed images depicting post-colonial views of decaying, Maghribi-inhabited social housing projects of 1993 Parisian suburbs (Figure 7.6). Indeed, in my interview with Adams (November 21, 2004, New York City), he acknowledged: “I know the implications of gender, the white male from America putting himself in the middle”. Nor am I here concerned with critiques of Adams’s modernist appropriations and estheticizing of Algerian women’s ID photos and the presumed desolation of Algerian lives in the Parisian periphery. Perhaps, this is because I see Garanger and Adams inextricably bound in a variety of ways. For example, from the legal perspective, Adams informed me that he signed a contract agreeing not to exhibit Garanger’s photographs alone, which I interpret as Garanger enforcing claims to both authorship and ownership of the ID photos that he presents as indissoluble, unchanging artifacts that nonetheless allow for modernist appropriations. Can Garanger claim ownership of the ID photographs he took, or do such images belong to the French military archives, or to the Algerian state, or to the female subjects photographed against their will?

142 Susan Slyomovics

Dennis Adams, “Recovered 10 on 10 (Adams on Garanger)”. Reproduced by permission of Dennis Adams

Figure 7.6 Dennis Adams, “Recovered 10 on 10 (Adams on Garanger)”. Reproduced by permission of Dennis Adams.

Adams is intrigued by these contusions oi authorship. An earlier 1991 installation, Road to Victory, is described in an online catalog: “Eight vitrines, Duratrans black anodized aluminum, wood, steel, plastic, tinted glass, mirror, fluorescent light referencing WWII aerial reconnaissance photographs taken under the supervision of Edward Steichen.” During World War II, Steichen was placed in charge of American naval combat photography.45 Adams persevered in the face of Museum of Modern Art personnel who insisted that he request permission from Steichen’s estate by arguing successfully that Steichen could not claim ownership over public domain images that belonged to the US military, even though Steichen was the photographer of record. Are Garanger’s images, in a sense, the “war booty” that Adams suggested to me?

Instead of theoretical approaches that draw on feminist, modernist, and copyright frameworks, I prefer to interrogate Adams’s felicitous, multivalent title, “recovered,” and what it might mean for family photos, ID cards, and stereotyping postcards that re-circulate in museums, homes, private collections, and the internet. Theodor Adorno’s epithet “museal”46 to describe a rupture in relations between the viewer and the object applies to Adams’s “10 by 10” project, to most of the Getty museum exhibition visitors, perhaps less so to Garanger’s Algerian corpus, and not at all to my Algerian in-laws and other Maghribis in search of direct genealogical links to visualizing their French colonial pasts. For this discussion, I draw on anthropology’s current concern with the topic of repatriation, which includes both archives and human remains. Colonizer administrations in the post-independence era appropriated the formerly colonized archives and shipped them from colony to metropole, with the result that the archival pasts and histories of newly independent states reside elsewhere. Strengthening Algerian claims to the right to their archival past are current determinations about provenance and pertinence, meaning that though the French created the documents, they did so in Algeria (provenance), and they are about Algeria and Algerians (pertinence) in strikingly dramatic and often life-threatening ways. The international archives community has formally adopted a position on archival claims stressing the inalienability of official records and worked for restitution, which could include microfilmed copies as the mutually acceptable form of return. French jurist and legal expert Louis Joinet authored a much-quoted United Nations document, published in 1997, in which he linked his opposition to impunity for perpetrators of human rights crimes to a subsection that he entitles “the right to know”, one that has become a credo for archivists worldwide and is known as the Joinet principles:47

Item 17: This is not simply the right of any individual victim or closely related persons to know what happened, a right to the truth. The right to know is also a collective right, drawing upon history to prevent violations from recurring in the future. Its corollary is a “duty to remember”, which the State must assume, in order to guard against the perversions of history that go under the names of revisionism or negationism; the knowledge of the oppression it has lived through is part of a people’s national heritage and as such must be preserved. These, then, are the main objectives of the right to know as a collective right. Item 18: Two series of measures are proposed for this purpose ... The second is aimed at preserving archives relating to human rights violations.

Documents and photographs matter to people on all sides of former conflicts. Aside from known cultural values for history, nation building, and heritage, what lies in the archive, functionally speaking, are documents, histories, obligations, and rights. The Algerian government has repeatedly requested access to French archives to document issues more serious to the authorities than visual family histories. For example, Algeria repeatedly requested since its 1962 independence - a demand granted by France only in 2007 - the maps that determine the current placement of tens of thousands of active land mines along Algeria’s eastern and western borders when the French built the 700-kilometer Challe and Morice lines during the war of independence. So potent and potentially inflammatory are the contents of archives that on April 29, 2008 French parliamentarians debated the project of a law of archives in which an increased limit to 75 years would be placed on access to government archives. Such an extension effectively places both the collaborationist Vichy French World War II archives as well as the French records of the Algerian war of independence beyond access,

in defiance of the Joinet principles of the collective right to know. French legislation is at odds with parallel European legal projects on the disposition and transparency of archives. In England, the current 30-year wait is undergoing review, with proposed legislation going forward to shorten the three-decades-long waiting period; in the former Soviet Eastern bloc countries, the pressure to open Communist-era archives has led to a maximum 18- to 20-year waiting period.48

Objects in museums possess a history, while the museum enterprise is to sidestep, if not efface that history during the brief episode of museum display and exhibition (for example, May-October 2009 at the Getty). Recovering the histories of the museum object - in my case, studying Algerian women’s ID photographs - is also an enterprise full of irony and paradox.49 At the heart of my in-laws’ domestic, intimate recovery of ID photographs is a profound gratitude for the mere existence of their grandparents’ images that formerly chronicled occasions of forcible picture taking. As well, they acknowledge what Gayatri Spivak terms the “enabling violence” of colonization and what Algerians in turn have come to call “un acquis” (that which is acquired). What can be enumerated and viewed, the sum total of all that has been acquired voluntarily or forcibly from French-imposed culture in North Africa, defines what was acquired: these are the poisoned gifts of their colonial history that pertain to their frozen Algerian patronymic surnames, francophonie, and photography.

 
Source
Found a mistake? Please highlight the word and press Shift + Enter  
< Prev   CONTENTS   Next >

Related topics