Researching the Colonial Past on Instagram

William Gallois
University of Exeter

While considerable literatures exist which describe interactions between European modernist art and local forms of culture, Tunisia is quite typical in being a site in which scholars know very little about indigenous forms of artistic production in the late- nineteenth and eraly-twentieth centuries. Colonists generally disparaged the paintings of locals as being instances of folk art, art brut, popular culture or graffiti, while such judgements have also tended to be replicated in the work of scholars of empire right up until our present. While a work of abstraction by Matisse or Klee is accorded value in the setting of a western museum, similar shapes and forms found painted onto walls and paper in north Africa have been viewed as crude instances of a backward culture.

Through a process of what Maziyar Ghiabi calls ‘visual archaeology’, contemporary scholars are, however, able to relocate and, in some cases, reproduce artworks from the margins of colonial-era photography and ephemeral forms such as postcards and advertisements. What such discoveries reveal in Tunisia, and across Islamic Africa, are the existence of vast corpuses of complex, beautiful and powerful works of art almost exclusively made by women. These paintings drew on traditiona forms of cultural expression in radically new ways so as to make pictures which would protect subjugated populations from the violence of colonial rule.

This got me thinking that Instagram could be an interesting place to explore the subject further, as it seems an especially apt venue for those who work primarily with images. As well as potentially exposing wider publics to new research, it has especial appeal as a means of democratically engaging audiences in the global South. I realise that some would question how the granting of intellectual property to a western digital behemoth is any sense a decolonial act, but given the manner in which scholars in the Humanities are in thrall to exclusionary paid-for publishing options, I’d suggest that it merits consideration as a means of speaking outside of the world of paywalls.

It also allows for immediate discussions about a piece of work to take place in real time and could potentially offer a means by which readers can comment on drafts of work. In an age when scholars routinely post drafts of their work on sites such as, Instagram also offers the potential to place even niche forms of research in a social sphere. I’ve certainly found this with my own work on paintings made by women in late-nineteenth-century Tunisa, which is discussed in essay form here.

As readers will see, there is a certain clunkiness inherent to the pairing of images and text on Instagram and I know that this piece is really too wordy to be comfortably read on a phone screen. That said, some have said that division of a traditional article into bite-size chunks suits their reading habits, and there is a sense in which a research community can be brought together through the media of followers and following on social media. There is also a certain liberation which comes in such “self-publishing” where new, risky or experimental ideas can be pursued slightly outside the purview of the academy.

In the case of this project, I wanted to ‘hand back’ a set of fantastic, anonymously-produced works of art from the Maghreb to contemporary audiences in north Africa. Doing so pseudonymously and in a public sphere gives the impression, I hope, that as well as valuing these incredible works, they are also being made available for others to use as they see fit and that their initial uncovering is just the first step in a series of conversations about the work.

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