Walls of Algiers makes a timely and challenging contribution to debates about French colonial photography, colonial urbanism, and their legacies. Certitude and strident critique of the colonial archive is dislodged in Walls of Algiers by a series of potent questions that look to the historical record as a focus for critique and a resource. Framing their project in such terms, Zeynep ÇÇelik, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Frances Terpak ask: "If architecture is left as primary evidence, how does the historian read and interpret it, dissociating it from the meanings given by colonial representations, yet capitalizing upon them? How do we break free from the guided or supervised receptions imposed by colonial image making in order to perceive other social facts and realities? How can the erasures in text or image be recovered and interpreted historically?"1 Through this exhibition's curatorial strategy and in its catalog, we see that these are not only questions for the architectural historian and visual theorist but also for the curator and contemporary artist.

Walls of Algiers begins with the familiar narrative of French colonial Algiers, the archetypal bifurcated colonial city divided into its European and Arab quarters——but one of its contributions is to insist on the diversity of Algiers' population both prior to and during French colonization and to ask how we understand the visual legacy differently in light of this complexity. This comes through most clearly in the catalog where authors analyze colonial urbanism while invoking a counter-reading of alternative forms of sociability within the colonial city. Clancy-Smith's essay registers the differences between the lived experience of the city of Algiers and its taxonomy of ethnographic typing in European costume books and photographs. Noting the systematic absence from the visual record of the large population of non-French Mediterranean subsistence migrants who settled in the city, she tracks their transformation within legal and social discourse from "not-quite-Europeans" to "not-quite-Frenchmen."2 Omar Carlier complicates the image of the Casbah as a bastion of traditional Algerian culture by addressing it as the primary site for the emergence of modern forms of muslim civil society in the early to mid-twentieth century. He argues that "sociocultural initiatives constituted the civic training ground for (proto)-national sentiment."3

In both catalog and exhibition, the French colonial claims on the city are contextualized within the longue duréée of Algiers' history, especially by emphasizing the pre-French colonial Ottoman legacy and its distortions and remnants in the French colonial and post-colonial periods. In her essay, ÇÇelik examines the ways the Ottoman imperial presence was inscribed in the spaces of the city and reconfigured through the later changes wrought to streets, monuments and squares.4 Isabelle Grangaud addresses the city's Ottoman legacy by studying the shifting fate of the hawma, or local neighborhood: an Ottoman representation of "urban space through social practices." Signaling the particular challenges of this project, she writes, "Due to the reordering of archival data following the French occupation, historians cannot move along a simple chronological path. Rather they must find the means to resurrect hidden historical processes" by transacting between "contemporary configurations" and their "historic counterparts" in order to "seek that which has been forgotten, [to] reveal that which no longer makes sense."5 This is also the challenge for understanding the visual legacy. There are parallels between Grangaud's statement and the underlying logic of the curators' process in establishing relays in the gallery among nineteenth-century images and texts, contemporary visual culture, and pre-French colonial imagery.

One of the primary exhibition strategies was the use of wall text to provide counternarratives. There was minimal curatorial voiceover on the label platforms, yet the deft hands of the curators were ever present, orchestrating nuanced dialogues between text and image. The labels included quotations from colonial administrators, excerpts from the legacy of early colonial resistance expressed in Algerian popular songs and poems, as well as the more recent critical perspectives of writers and intellectuals, such as Assia Djebar, Frantz Fanon, Pierre Bourdieu, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Edward Said. This strategy established circuits between text and image, with the quotations allowing for the play of multiple voices, thus operating variously as interruptions, challenges, and alternative interpretations of colonial imagery.

This was exemplified in the bay of the exhibition dedicated to the Casbah. Situated next to the section on the European quarter of Algiers, this display exposed the segregation of the colonial city, but also revealed the Casbah as a site of colonial resistance to the French city planning calculations. Photographs of the Casbah's narrow alleys and shaded courtyards, stereotypical picturesque framings that were endlessly reiterated by European painters and photographers throughout the colonial period, were hung alongside other images and texts that invoked ongoing rituals of local habitation. This conjunction was devised in response to a challenge that the curators articulate in their introductory essay: how to "acknowledge the violence inherent in colonial urbanism while recognizing that the 'citizen-dwellers' of the quarter or neighborhood had imagined and mobilized a 'sovereign' city sector relatively free from colonial violation, or that new forms of association, such as sports organizations, could bring together, if only momentarily, individuals from different strata of the colonial hierarchy?"6

One photographic album in this exhibition was particularly effective in embodying the curatorial premise of invoking multiple narratives of the city (Figure 1). Where most of the exhibition's labels unsettled the self-evident verities of the colonial photographs, this album was one of the few objects with direct curatorial interpretation. Its ambiguity seemed to demand this clarity. Although the context of the album's production and its precise signification is uncertain, its recipient was evidently not French.7 The interpretive label registered the album's distinct characteristics: individuals are specifically named rather than identified according to generic ethnic typologies, captioning is addressed to a viewer conversant in Arabic and Judeo-Arabic, and it contains city views in which signs of French colonial impact are minimized. The curators chose a mode of presentation that registered the unusual character of this album, thus putting it into circulation as a potential counternarrative; and yet, as they carefully noted, its precise meaning eludes us. Registering the album's ambiguity through this display strategy signals the open-endedness of archival interpretation and reveals the limits of curatorial certitude. ÇÇelik, Clancy-Smith, and Terpak's project is an important contribution to the study of colonial visual culture because of the varied ways it utilizes the resources of curatorial strategy and scholarly text to bring counternarratives into contact with colonial logic. Such an approach identifies the limits of our knowledge and underscores the urgency of such revisionary historical work.

Figure 1

View of the exhibition Walls of Algiers, Getty Research Institute Gallery (photo: John Kiffe)

Figure 1

View of the exhibition Walls of Algiers, Getty Research Institute Gallery (photo: John Kiffe)

Related Publication

Zeynep ÇÇelik, Julia Clancy-Smith, and Frances Terpak, eds., Walls of Algiers: Narratives of the City through Text and Image. Los Angeles, Seattle, and London: Getty Research Institute in Association with University of Washington Press, 2009, 288 pp., 90 color illus. $40, ISBN 9780295988689


ÇÇelik et al., Walls of Algiers, 10.

Julia Clancy-Smith, ibid., 56.

Omar Carlier, ibid., 73––74

Zeynep ÇÇelik, ibid., 198––226.

Isabelle Grangaud, ibid., 179.

ÇÇelik et al., ibid., 10.

Frances Terpak, ibid., 120.