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. Continue reading “Researching the Colonial Past on Instagram”

Exhibition launch: The Painters of the City: North Africa 1880-1920

EXHIBITION LAUNCH Thu 9 May 2019, 18:00

Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter
Stocker Rd
Exeter EX4 4ND

  • Free, no advance booking required

You are invited to the launch of The Painters of the City: North Africa 1880-1920. This exhibition has been curated by Professor William Gallois, and explores a mystery which also constitutes a unique moment in the history of art.

In the last years of the 19th century and the first decades of the 20th century, new forms of painting emerged on and around buildings in cities and towns across north Africa. They were identifiably related to existing cultural forms – especially tattoos , textiles and jewellery – but their sudden appearance in the form of murals and frescoes was unprecedented.

The launch of the exhibition is on 9 May at 18:00 in The Street Gallery.

Come along for drinks and nibbles! All are welcome.

For more information about the exhibition, please click here.

If you have any questions or enquiries, please email William Gallois at