In the opening of his influential book Orientalism, Edward Saïd exposed the dominance and hegemony of Western authors and artists in shaping and formulating the fundamental narratives about the ‘Orient’, emphasizing the binary and self-consolidating character of colonial discourse:
A very large mass of writers, among whom are poets, novelists, philosophers, political theorists, economists, and imperial administrators, have accepted the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epic, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, mind, destiny and so on.
Orientalism and the French colonial postcard industry
French photographers were also instrumental in the ‘artistic’ movement of reproducing ‘the Orient’ and the picture postcard industry serves as tangible evidence of its fabricated nature. Often staged in a studio with careful attention to props and backgrounds, these tourist-oriented postcards gained remarkable commercial success. As noted by historian David Prochaska, the picture postcard industry was a massive enterprise, with an estimated circulation of eight to sixty million postcards in France between 1899 and 1902 alone. With extensive production from the late 1800s until the mid-1900s, they became a readily accessible visual reference point through which the colonizer could ‘see’ the French colonies.
The postcards’ relatively inexpensive and collectible aspect contributed to the proliferation of particular forms of imperial knowledge purported to depict an accurate view of the French colonies. Specifically, the indigenous female body constituted a central subject of colonial imagery. It became a visual reference frame that facilitated the colonizer’s perception of North Africa, West Africa, and Indochina in the French metropole. The staged-picture postcards encapsulated them in a phantasmic racialized representation by amplifying the stereotypes of the sexually exotic oriental woman. For example, North African and Vietnamese women became the archetypical embodiments of Western fantasies, depicted either veiled or stripped, bashful or provocative, perpetuating the Orientalist trope.
Exoticizing the colonies: orientalist tropes of harem life
Edward Said’s Orientalism was a milestone in developing a line of scholarship. In his seminal work, The Colonial Harem, Algerian literary critic Malek Alloula delved into the role and dissemination of erotic colonial postcards. Alloula’s analysis of ninety images of Algerian women reveals a deliberate catering to the occidental gaze through the use of scanty attire. Of particular emphasis is the imperial male gaze, which Alloula argues is behind the staging of photographs featuring sensuous female plurality commonly associated with the harem theme. Through portraying multiple women in a single frame, the photographers sought to sexualize Algerian women and construct Algeria as an exotic harem for the absent male viewer, thereby establishing an “oriental sapphism.”
Alloula does not merely critique the photographer’s intrusive and inauthentic approach but also the broader French Orientalist framework that underlies it. The travel relics in question were “empty photographs” filled with discourse. They failed to represent any veracious reality and actively exercised ideological and colonial domination. According to Alloula:
The postcard, even – especially – when it pretends to mirror the exotic, is nothing but one of the forms of the aesthetic justification of colonial violence
Thus, the French audience could attain a sense of “fantasy revenge” on the once inaccessible world of Algerian women by violating their privacy and presenting them as passive objects to be seen and overseen by the French colonizers.
Trans-Imperial Insights: Decoding Representations of Indigenous Women in Colonial Postcards
In French Southeast Asia, historian Jennifer Yee and Vietnamese literature scholar Lily V. Chiu have revealed that the pseudo-ethnographic “type” postcards in Indochina perpetuated the practice of stereotyping and exoticizing Vietnamese women, using meticulous Orientalist codes of representation. Yee suggests, for instance, that captions such as “Jeune Fille Annamite” (Young Annamite Girl) reiterated the sheer myth of the Other as belonging to a recognizable type that could be labeled and classified. As such, women became “objects to be collected.”
The writer Leïla Sebbar and historian Christelle Taraud have also showed that postcards featuring Arab women similarly employed pseudo-ethnic labels such as “Kabyles,” “Berbère,” and “Mauresque,” regardless of their actual ethnic origins. These labels were often accompanied by recurring captions such as “scenes and types,” which directed the women’s poses and orchestrated the scenes according to an established iconographic code that relied on essentialist racialized typification.
In both parts of the Empire, the arrangement of objects and decor in the mise-en-scène worked to reduce the woman to a feigned anthropological specificity and position her as an ethnographic representative of the colonized society under the control of the colonizer. At the same time, these were not simply intended to convey a realistic portrayal of life in the colonies. Instead, they aimed to mark the disjuncture with “European” lifestyles by emphasizing the racial boundaries between European societies and the colonies.
Instead of studying them separately, a joint examination of colonial postcards produced in Algeria, Morocco, and Vietnam during the late 19th and early 20th centuries can significantly enhance our understanding of Orientalist imagery and France’s purview of colonial subjects. Rather than interpreting each aspect of the postcard as part of a global and homogenized colonial gaze across the Empire, a trans-imperial perspective reveals subtleties and distinctions that existed in the image and accompanying captions.
Turning our attention to the clothing exhibited in these postcards will provide a point of analysis to investigate the variations and complexities in the constructed representations of the indigenous female body, from the Maghreb to Vietnam. The second part of the article will also examine the textual components of the picture postcards, which encompassed not only a photograph and caption but frequently a handwritten message from the sender, a feature often overlooked by scholars. Exploring the interplay between the image and text will provide insight into the broader context of colonial postcard practices and the diverse imperialist discourses conveyed through these postcards about indigenous women.
Alloula, Malek. The Colonial Harem. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.
Chiu, Lily Veronica. “Alter/Native: Imagining and Performing the Native Woman in Francophone and Vietnamese Literature.” Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 2004.
Prochaska, David. “The Archive of Algérie imaginaire.” In History and Anthropology 4, no. 2 (1990): 373-420.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheons Books, 1979.
Sebbar, Leïla and Christelle Taraud. Femmes D’Afrique Du Nord Cartes Postales, 1885-1930. Saint-Pourçain-sur-Sioule: Bleu autour, 2010.
Yee, Jennifer, and Lily Veronica Chiu. “Camille’s Breasts: The Evolution of the Fantasy Native in Régis Wargnier’s Indochine.” In France and “Indochina”: Cultural Representations. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2005.
Yee, Jennifer. “Recycling the ‘Colonial Harem’? Women in Postcards from French Indochina,” French Cultural Studies 15, no. 1 (2004): 5-19.
Yee, Jennifer. Clichés De La Femme Exotique Un Regard Sur La littérature Coloniale Française Entre 1871-1914. Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000.
Cover image: Jean Geiser, Jeune Mauresque, postcard, 1910s (Studio Delcampe: Algers, Algeria).