As part of a semester-long research project, Ana-Joel Falcón-Wiebe examined a set of twenty-nine recently acquired late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century panoramic photographs by French photographer Alexandre Bougault. The project culminated in a spring exhibition, Inhabited Landscapes: Bougault’s Algeria, which brought together photography, poetry, and music for an immersive museum experience. In March 2017, Falcón-Wiebe was interviewed about her research and curatorial perspective.
The video above shows Falcón-Wiebe talking about her research. An edited version of her full response is below.
Alexandre Bougault was born in 1851 in Paris. His parents died when he was fourteen years old, and four years later he enrolled in the French military. He served in the Franco-Prussian War, and soon after he was deployed to Algeria. To our knowledge, this is the first time that he encountered the Algerian terrain—through a context of military conquest. In 1893, Bougault moved to Toulon, one of the major port cities in southern France, with his wife and children, and from this city he was conveniently located to make frequent trips to Algeria.
What attracted me to the photographs was that they diverged from the model of Orientalist photography that exploits the human body by focusing on the female body and over-sensualizing it or making it erotic in cultures where standards of decency and clothing are wildly divergent from Western conceptions. Bougault doesn’t do that. The images of women that he includes are few but also they seem more integrated within the activities that would be considered routine, even though they are to some extent still staged. One of the elements that makes Bougault’s work stand out from the many photographers that dedicated the bulk of their artistic careers to Algeria is this format of the panoramic photograph that was designed to attract tourists to give them a different view into the Algerian terrain.
Bougault, as a French military officer, is seeing through his own lens the terrains in a very organized way, a way that vanishes French presence overtly from the scenes. This idea goes back to the title of the exhibition, Inhabited Landscapes. One of the objectives of giving such a title to the exhibition was to draw attention to what it is that is inhabiting these landscapes. I wanted to bring to this exhibition poetry, song, and music as voices that also inhabit this exhibition. For this, I sought a collaboration with professors at Skidmore College within the world languages and literatures and music departments. There is such richness in dialogue and discourse drawing from their strengths in talking about folk songs, Berber songs, the songs of lore. And what it means that the spirit of the poet within Algerian society is one who not only calls people to remember their heritage, but one who gives comfort and solace to the people. These Berber poems for the first time were transcribed from Berber as spoken language around 1936 by Jean Déjeaux and then for the exhibition, we translated that into French, which had more currency at this time period. From that, we translated the poems into English, which has more currency in our context. So now we have this panoply of meaning and layered presence and a range of voices to enrich this dialogue between a beautiful lyrical scene and yet a voice of resistance that calls for a return to the old ways or that cries out to God for strength in resisting change.
The three lenses that guide the viewer’s experience, perception, and interpretation of these photographs are rooted in the layered composition of the photographs themselves, but no photographs neatly adhere to any one category.
In the idea of Resonance we have a strong allusion to sound and the way sound reverberates, or an idea reverberates. We have scenes of the Algerian ports and from these ports, we have complex relationships where ideas and people traveled, where the views of Algeria as an exotic, alluring terrain were fabricated and reverberated. They resonated to the extent that inhabitants, visitors, tourists, travelers, and officers were beginning to come and inhabit the Algerian terrain.
Another aspect of the lens Resonance is the traditions themselves of these nomadic people in the ways that their lifestyles drew so much attention, and reached the ears of a European mass audience without being fully understood and seen through a very Western paradigm of the exotic, of the other, in a way that projects itself onto this unknown entity.
Redefinition is a category that draws attention to change and transformation and the very visible, tangible ways that French presence, French military colonizing presence, transformed Algerian terrain by renaming cities like Algiers from Mozghranna. That change impacts notions of identity for people who now live in a city that has lost something. It has lost its essence by a change of name, a change of identity. The poem that accompanies these images within the category of Redefinition was written by Abd-El- Kader, who was the leader of the Resistance of Algeria at the time when Algiers had fallen to the French. So, in this poem we have moments of mourning and deep emotion and despair, wondering about the future of Algiers.
It’s a wonderful juxtaposition between an Algerian voice that articulates all the emotion conjured by this change power, and then the complete restructuring of the face of the city of Algiers through architecture. When the French colonized Algiers, many vernacular buildings, architectural structures, were destroyed to make room for a more Western facade, a more Western-looking city.
Resilience speaks to the traditions, the rituals, the lifestyles that in a way defied change through perseverance, through consistency, through cyclical repetition of traditions of old. We have secular rituals like a marriage processional in the desert or simply nomads inhabiting the desert dunes. We have religious rituals like a call to prayer or the individual lifestyle of a Muslim who stops in the middle of the desert with his camel to pray to God. By seeking solace in tradition, by seeking solace in religion, these are instances of resistance.