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HomeContentsOnline exhibitions > Icons of the South - Portraits of Ouleds-Nails (Algeria 1860-1910)

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Icons of the South - Portraits of Ouleds-Nails
(Algeria 1860-1910)

“Exposed to the curious eyes of foreigners in all the showcases of the photographers, is a portrait of a woman of the south in a bizarre costume, with the impressive face of an idol from the old Orient […], the face of a bird of prey with eyes full of mystery …” So begins Le Portrait de l’Ouled Nail, written by Isabelle Eberhardt at the very beginning of the twentieth century. Classic iconographs of the Algerian south, the Ouled Nail never ceased to fascinate travellers and artists, from Fromentin to Gide and Robert Hitchens, who popularised the legend of these Bedouin women leaving the desert for Biskra and Bou Saada, well before the arrival of the first Europeans, to become dancers and prostitutes for long enough to build up a satisfactory dowry and return to marry a man of their own tribe.
The works in this exhibition is mostly made up of the oldest photographs - that is, those that circulated as cartes de visite between 1860 and 1870. In their particular style they already reveal the irrevocable perversion of a tradition. And, for the achievement of those - expressly proud - poses so favoured by the barrack-room (the client is always male) how many female bodies have been lasciviously abandoned, and at a rate that has been notably accelerated by colonisation! The formidable or striking views of the Ouled taken by Alary-Geiser or the tender fragility of those by Clavier-Richan tell their own story of this extremely threatened sense of pride.
For notably technical reasons, these first images remain distanced, and primarily show ‘bizarre costumes’, hair styled like the horns of a ram, and the finery of necklaces on which the Ouled Nail fastens coins earned in the secrecy of the alcove. This is definitely not to be confused with other Berber costumes of the women of the Aures or Kabylia, and even less with those of ‘belly dancers’ or, at least, of the most celebrated of them - the dance of the Ouled is hieratic, and not undulating.
By the 1860s the most important photographic studios of Algiers were already circulating their first images, but in this exhibition we have favoured two much less well-known studios, both with the name Photographie Saharienne. The first, active since 1865, distributes its cartes de visite with only its address inscribed – 1 rue Tourville. The second, which will later claim its date of creation as 1860, is none other than the first studio set up in Biskra by the photographer, Auguste Maure, now, at last, receiving recognition. Our own research, meticulously carried out by Gilles Dupont, a descendant of Maure, has restored the importance of these two studios, even if it has not yet established an iconographic link between them.
Paradoxically, it’s the moment when the tradition is definitively perverted, when the designation "Ouled Nail" is no more than a virtual tribe whose name signifies only ‘a local prostitute’ that the photographer gets closer and at times achieves real portraits. But if Rudolf Lehnert tried to emulate the art of the painter Etienne Dinet and reconstruct the legend of the Ouled, as Edward Sheriff Curtis would that of the American Indians, his French colleague, photographer Emile Fréchon, who was dubbed within French pictorialism as the equal of naturalist Peter Henry Emerson, was not taken in. For he was also a journalist.
When, in 1892, he compiles for Jules Gervais-Courtellemont a series of articles on Biskra, illustrated by his own plates, he explains that “the number [of Ouleds] who marry lawfully is immensely limited […] ’Ouled Nail’ does not denote a race, but a profession; one is an Ouled Nail as one is a purveyor of pancakes or doughnuts …”
Of these fallen idols, there remains today only the image, “exposed to the curious eyes”, and some first names, preserved by the captions of postcards, Myriam bent Ali , for example, who tried in vain to teach Andre Gide a thing or two but was the delight of Pierre Louÿs, inspiring his famous Chansons de Bilitis. Isabelle Eberhardt was also a journalist, but it‘s as novelist that she questioned her reader’s imagination - and perhaps ours too - when she wondered: "how many extraordinary flights of fancy, how much prescience - perhaps among some refined minds - of this bleak and magnificent South, were evoked by this portrait of the Ouled Nail in the onlookers who gazed at it …"
“Bleak and magnificent” is how the Ouled Nail, these icons of the South, continue to reveal themselves to us.
Michel Mégnin, Toulouse, December 2011
With my profound thanks to Gilles Dupont, great grandson of Auguste Maure; and to Bruno Tartarin, the Photo-Verdeau gallery, Paris.
Michel Mégnin is a historian of photography and a collector. He has written two reference works - Tunis 1900, Lehnert & Landrock photographes (2005), and La photo-carte de visite en Algérie au XIXème siècle (2007).
[Special thanks to Angela Martin for an attentive and sensitive translation from the original French.] 



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