With the world’s capital cities now almost overflowing with encyclopaedia, thematic, and generic museums, more and more attention is being paid to museums in the provinces, sometimes in areas traditionally not always seen as visitor destinations.
Provincial cities over a certain size have of course long wanted to compete with their country’s capitals, often by erecting art or other museums as expressions of civic pride. However, perhaps the most successful of these have been institutions calling up memories of local achievements, with the museums built by local businessmen across Britain and the United States to house their art and other collections coming most readily to mind.
However, that was then. Today, there is an alternative trend for provincial towns and cities across the world to bid for satellite branches of metropolitan institutions, often within the framework of local or regional rejuvenation plans.
The post-industrial city of Bilbao in northern Spain has had a branch of the New York-based Guggenheim Museum since 1997, for example. The northern port of Liverpool in the UK has a branch of London’s Tate Gallery, and the former mining town of Lens in northern France has a new satellite branch of the Louvre in Paris.
These institutions have added hugely to the towns and cities hosting them, even if it has not always been so clear why they have landed there. Why the Guggenheim in Bilbao and not a branch of the Madrid Prado? Why the Louvre in Lens and not the Guggenheim?
News that the Institut du monde arabe, the French capital’s institute to raise European awareness of the Arab world, had set up a branch in the post-industrial northern French town of Tourcoing thus might have raised eyebrows. What does the Arab world have to do with Tourcoing?
In the event, the citizens of Tourcoing and the surrounding region need not have worried, since the new Institut du monde arabe-Tourcoing, housed in a former swimming pool since it opened in 2016, has been a notable success. Even so, on the day Al-Ahram Weekly visited in early March there was little in the rather bleak northern European winter weather to remind one of the strong sunshine and often vivid colours of the Arab world.
However, the new institute was hosting a remarkable exhibition of early photographs of Algeria that more than made up for any outdoor bleakness, and the building itself is an equally remarkable example of the adaptive reuse of an early 20th-century heritage building. It was originally built for a very different purpose, yet one that was also overflowing with civic pride.
Tourcoing is part of the Lille conurbation in northern France, and visitors to the new Institut du monde arabe-Tourcoing are best advised to take the efficient metro system from the centre of the nearby city. The architecture, glazed brick with decorative brick courses and iron finishing, is typical of the public buildings of this part of northern France, though it is not particularly reminiscent of the Arab world.
Built in 1904 as part of a local drive to improve the fitness of the area’s population, with most families having at least one member working in the region’s textile mills, the former Tourcoing swimming pool was designed by architect Désiré Dehaene on a commission from the local council. He produced a striking street façade that effectively announced the seriousness with which the community took the sporting activities within, as well as a generously proportioned interior that made cunning use of the available space.
The building was a considerable financial investment, and it was solidly built. It soon more than paid for itself as Tourcoing became known for its swimming team, which won many national and international competitions, including the water polo competition at the 1924 Olympic Games. Entering the new institute through the building’s original decorative metal doorway, visitors are ushered through into the temporary exhibition space housed in the swimming pool’s former changing rooms.
There are apparently no plans for a permanent exhibition in the new Institut du monde arabe-Tourcoing, but when phase two of the project is completed, the original swimming pool area with its striking transparent roof could make an effective events space for discussions, seminars, and musical and other performances from the Arab world.
The photographs on display in the Institut’s Photographing Algeria exhibition, running until 13 July, cover a period of well over a century.
They range from examples of the first images of the country taken shortly after the invention of photographic techniques in the mid-19th century to images taken using almost unimaginably different techniques earlier this decade. They include photographs taken by a wide range of different photographers for different purposes and with sometimes very different audiences in mind.
The earliest photographs in the exhibition were taken in the later 19th century when the French colonial authorities in Algeria started taking photographs for survey and reconnaissance purposes, adding to the earlier orientalist images of the country familiar from similar European photography in Egypt.
Companies such as Frères Neurdein in Paris and Leroux in Algiers produced postcard-type images of Algeria that established a repertoire of locations including Algiers, Biskra, Oran and Tlemcen and identified particularly photogenic monuments and landscapes along with distinctive human types. Perhaps inevitably, as in Egypt the latter included familiar figures from the orientalist imagination, among them women, market-traders, Bedouin, and others.
Commercial postcard albums were put together for European visitors to Algeria, perhaps to pore over once they had returned home as tourists often do today. The exhibition includes a high-quality postcard album of images of Algeria put together by Leroux in 1912 that includes much of the standard repertoire, and one can imagine this gracing the equivalent of early 20th-century coffee-tables.
More adventurous visitors to Algeria at the time, or those more able to manage the period’s cumbersome photographic equipment, put together their own scrapbooks of images as souvenirs of their visits. The exhibition includes an album made by the Gaumont family of their vacation in Algeria in 1911, and in the same way that many modern holiday snaps taken with mobile phones are similar to standard commercial images, the Gaumont family’s pictures are much like those in the postcard albums of the time.
However, not all the images in the exhibition were taken for such purposes, and as technologies improved in the earlier decades of the last century European photographs of Algeria took on a more scientific and less picturesque or touristic character.
Shorter exposure times meant that photographs of human subjects could be more informal and less posed, and better film and improved printing meant that close-up images capturing previously impossible levels of detail could be produced. Even in the later 19th century, photography in Algeria could have an official or even military character at odds with the images produced by visiting orientalist painters or tourists. Photography started to be used for official records, land surveys, and identification papers as was also the case in Europe at this time, with individuals being recorded by the authorities and their images placed in official files.
Anthropologists started to use photography to record disappearing ways of life, with French anthropologist Thérèse Rivière producing photographs of everything from marriage customs to sheep-shearing, cooking, and market shopping when she was carrying out fieldwork among Algerian Berbers in the Aurès Mountains in the 1930s.
Her colleague Germaine Tillion, as an anthropologist perhaps best known for her Le Harem et les cousins, a work on traditional kinship systems, but known to wider audiences for her work in the French Resistance during World War II and incarceration in the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp, also carried out photographic work in Algeria.
The exhibition ends with contemporary, perhaps clandestine, photographs of Algeria taken by Bruno Boudjelal, along with human subjects taken in the 1950s by Marc Garanger and press images taken by Marc Riboud in the early 1960s immediately before the end of the Independence War. Some of these appeared in the French news magazines of the time, among them Paris Match, with a rather different set appearing in Al-Moujahid, the official newspaper of the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), taken by Mohamed Kouaci.
Boudjelal has rifled through family photograph albums to produce an alternative domestic history of the 1970s and 1980s in Algeria consisting of picnics at the beach, family mealtimes, and social occasions done using a variety of techniques, including black-and-white and then colour prints, faded Polaroids, and studio portraits. Photographs taken by French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu during his research in Algeria in the 1950s round off the show.
This period saw the publication of early works by Bourdieu such as his Sociologie d’Algérie and Esquisse d’une théorie de la pratique, apparently along with his choice of future career.
“The ethnographer’s gaze that I turned on Algeria,” Bourdieu is quoted as saying, “I was also able to turn on myself, on the people of my own country, and on my parents, including on the way my father and mother spoke French. While photography is a manifestation of the distance of the observer taking the photographs… it also presupposes the proximity of something familiar,” he wrote.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 18 April 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: An Arab angle on northern France.
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