The Portrait and the Colonial Imaginary

Photography between France and Africa, 1900-1939

Simon Dell

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Monograph - paperback

"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.", Simon Dell

Unique study of portraiture in the colonial imaginary
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 this book Simon Dell explores the various roles played by portraiture in this colonial imaginary.

Anyone interested in the history of colonial Africa will have encountered innumerable portraits of African elites produced during the first half of the twentieth century, yet no book to date has focused on these ubiquitous images. Dell analyses the production and dissemination of such portraits and situates them in a complex and conflicted field of representations.

Moving between European and African perspectives, The Portrait and the Colonial Imaginary blends history with art history to provide insights into the larger processes that were transforming the French metropole and colonies during the early twentieth century.

This publication is GPRC-labeled (Guaranteed Peer-Reviewed Content).


1. Making men 
Citizens and subjects

A new humanity 
The Republican imaginary and the colonial imaginary 
The colonial imaginary renewed 
Portraits, points of view, and representation 
Portraits and subjectivities 

2. Perception, apperception and disavowal 
André Gide and Marc Allégret in the Congo

Gide’s queer disposition 
Allégret’s apprenticeships 
Perceiving the African 
The heart of things 
Difference and differentiation 
Resistance and accommodation 
Allégret’s editions 
Missionary perceptions 
Civilisation, portraiture and contingency 1

3. Staging, actors and audiences 
The Exposition coloniale internationale in Paris

Lyautey’s project 
Time, portrait, patriarchy 
Structures of resistance and the limits of opposition 
Roger Parry’s third space 
The burden of civilisation 

4. Performance, appropriation and dispossession 
King Ibrahim Njoya and Mosé Yeyap in the Cameroon Grassfields

Extraversion and representation 
Njoya’s appropriations 
The making of Yeyap 
The palace and the museum 
Exhibition, alienation and dispossession 
The uses of the image of Njoya 
Yeyap’s arts in France 

Charles Atangana between Africa and France

Illustration Credits 

Format: Monograph - paperback

Size: 230 × 170 × 17 mm

248 pages


ISBN: 9789462702158

Publication: February 26, 2020

Languages: English

Stock item number: 133795

Simon Dell teaches in the Department of Art History and World Art Studies at the University of East Anglia.

Dell offers a new and very useful analysis of the complicated interrelationship between France, African colonies, and photography during the years between 1900 and 1930—a moment when the “French empire” was at its strongest. Most importantly, he recognizes that there are many kinds of colonizing gazes, and he analyzes in depth three case studies to tease out the differences. Kim Sichel, The Journal of Modern History 2023 95:2, 474-475,

Jeder, der sich für die Kulturgeschichte der europäischen Kolonisation interessiert, wird dieses Buch mit Gewinn lesen.
Matthias Waechter, Historische Zeitschrift, 2021, Volume 312 Issue 1, DOI:

Situating his study within the move to take art history beyond Eurocentrism and into the field of world art studies, Simon Dell works persuasively across historiography, literary criticism, and, centrally, visual analysis. Drawing inspiration from Levinas’s reflection on the ethics of encounter, he foregrounds the place of the photographic medium, both in the construction of the colonial narrative and as appropriated or resisted by African leaders contending with imperial hegemony. Dell explains how its European provenance meant that the photographic portrait was never a neutral medium in the colonial context. [...] Throughout this important book, Dell’s deft, studied sequencing of visual material provides illuminating points of access to a wider historical narrative.
Edward J Hughes, French Studies, December 2020,

... un livre très fouillé du professeur Simon Dell sur cinq séries de portraits photographiques entre France et Afrique (principalement le Cameroun) entre 1900 et 1939 [...] Pour chaque série, l’auteur fait une analyse argumentée, très détaillée, quasi « entomologique », des écrits et des images, naviguant entre théorie de philosophie politique et analyse iconographique détaillée.
Marc Lenot, 31 Août 2020, Lunettes Rouges