Simon Dell | The Portrait and the Colonial Imaginary

Simon Dell

"It was very difficult to find a way of writing about the different perspectives of France and Africa, of Africans in France and the French in Africa."

French colonisers of the Third Republic claimed not to oppress but to liberate, imagining they were spreading republican ideals to the colonies to make a Greater France. In his book 'The Portrait and the Colonial Imaginary' Simon Dell explores the various roles played by portraiture in this colonial imaginary. A Q&A with Simon Dell.

Can you briefly and concisely explain in plain language what your book is about?
My book is about what it means to be represented, and what it means to shape identities. It is about how the French represented Africans in the earlier part of the twentieth century but it is also about how Africans have represented themselves. Whilst I focus on photography, I wanted to juxtapose photographs with other images and other narratives, so the book includes discussions of paintings, drawings and exhibitions. It also deals with biography, literature, journalism and film.

What or who inspired you to choose this topic?
This I remember very clearly, although it is now almost twenty years ago.  Shortly after I arrived at the University of East Anglia, Germain Loumpet presented a paper on King Njoya of the Bamum and his invention of an alphabet at the beginning of the twentieth century.  I found this fascinating but it was only after about ten years of working alongside colleagues teaching the arts of Africa that I felt able to begin my own research on Njoya.

Do you have any reading suggestions to share (books, blogs, journals, ...) for anyone who wants to know more about the subject?
A very accessible introduction to the topic is Erin Haney’s Photography and Africa.  The Association Connaissance de l’histoire de l’Afrique contemporaine (ACHAC) has a newsletter which comes out twice a month with details of recent publications and events.  The work of that collective has been very, very important.

How did the writing process for this book go? Did you experience anything surprising, funny or strange during the realization of the book?
The most surprising thing is that I managed to write the book at all!  It was very difficult to find a way of writing about the different perspectives of France and Africa, of Africans in France and the French in Africa. 

What would you like readers to remember about your book?
I’ve tried to interweave themes which are often treated in isolation.  The book is at least an attempt to write an alternative history - although I still don’t know whether I have really succeeded.  But it is an account of portraiture which brings together very different types of material.  At the end of the book I ask the reader to reflect on histories of colonialism and histories of portraiture.  I don’t think anyone would now want to write a history of colonialism confined to cities like Paris, London, Brussels and Berlin.  And yet many of histories of art are still restricted to just such locations. 

Do you have plans for another publication? What will it be about?
I have made quite a lot of progress on a book which deals with roughly the same time period and similar themes of exploitation and freedom – it’s about Communism and photography.


The Portrait and the Colonial ImaginaryThe Portrait and the Colonial Imaginary
Photography between France and Africa, 1900-1939
Simon Dell









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