Monday, September 7, 2009

Malek Alloula's The Colonial Harem

I picked up a copy of Appropriation the other day - a wonderful collection of writings on the subject published as part of the series Documents of Contemporary Art. Contained within is an excerpt from Malek Alloula's The Colonial Harem, which explores the phenomenon of Orientalism in postcolonial European postcard imagery. Focusing largely on photographs of Algerian women, Alloula examines photography as an export of cultural appropriation, racism and Eastern exoticism. Below, Alloula expounds on photography's effectiveness in propagating Orientalist stereotypes:

"It matters little if Orientalistic painting begins to run out of wind or falls into mediocrity. Photography steps in to take up the slack and reactivates the phantasm at its lowest level. The postcard does it one better; it becomes the poor man's phantasm: for a few pennies, display racks full of dreams. The postcard is everywhere, covering all the colonial space, immediately available to the tourist, the soldier, the colonist. It is at once their poetry and their glory captured for the ages; it is also their pseudo-knowledge of the colony. It produces stereotypes in the manner of great seabirds producing guano. It is the fertilizer of the colonial vision.

The postcard is ubiquitous. It can be found not only at the scene of the crime it perpetrates but at a far remove as well. Travel is the essence of the postcard, and expedition is its mode. It is the fragmentary return to the mother country. It straddles two spaces: the one it represents and the one it will reach. It marks out the peregrinations of the tourist, the successive postings of the soldier, the territorial spread of the colonist. It sublimates the spirit of the stop-over and the sense of place; it is an act of unrelenting aggressiveness against sedentariness. In the postcard, there is the suggestion of a complete metaphysics of uprootedness.

It is also a seductive appeal the spirit of adventure and pioneering. In short, the postcard would be a resounding defense of the colonial spirit in picture form. It is the comic strip of colonial morality.

But it is not merely that; it is more. It is the propagation of the phantasm of the harem by means of photography. It is the degraded, and degrading, revival of this phantasm."