A few of the artists who took the trouble to travel to Algeria got to know the country and its people better. The family of Alfred Chataud owned property there, and he paid several visits before settling permanently near Sidi Moussa, to the south of Algiers.
Few of Chataud’s paintings from Algeria are now accessible, but one of his most striking watercolour sketches is of A Richly-Adorned Ouled Naïl Woman. She’s a far cry from any figure seen in the more popular Orientalist works.
Georges Jules Victor Clairin may seem an unlikely artist to have served as ethnographer, having been a well-known socialite and long-term friend of the actress Sarah Bernhardt. But he visited Morocco during the 1860s, where he became friends with Marià Fortuny, had a particular interest in clothing and costume, and returned to Algeria later.
Clairin’s two paintings of Ouled Naïl women, above his undated An Ouled Naïl Woman and below An Ouled-Naïl Tribal Dancer from 1895, provide a couple of glimpses of women from this nomadic group from the foothills of the Atlas Mountains. Exotic they certainly are, with elaborate headwear, richly-decorated clothing, and no doubt over their identity.
Of the artists I have come across, though, it is Alphonse-Étienne Dinet who went furthest to gain a better idea of the reality behind Orientalism. Trained under William Bouguereau himself, he first travelled to the Ouled Naïl Range in the south of Algeria in 1884, with a scientific expedition.
After 1903, when he bought a house there, he spent most of the year painting in and around Bou Saâda, in the heart of Ouled Naïl country. He converted to Islam between 1908-13, since when he was known as Nasr’Eddine Dinet, and only a few months before his death he completed the Hajj pilgrimage.
Dinet’s undated Love’s Martyr (Chahid el ouschq) appears to have an underlying narrative which has been lost. It shows a group of what must be Ouled Naïl women, judging by their headgear, making a fuss of an older man who appears visibly distressed, and pleads towards the woman at the left, who seems diffident towards him.
Abdel Ghourem et Nour el Aïn (Love’s Slave and Light of the Eyes) (1900) shows a couple outdoors at night, the man embracing the woman, as she resists his forwardness by placing her spread hand over his mouth, presumably to block his kiss.
Dinet’s Spring in Your Hearts (1902) shows three couples, from the womens’ facial markings and dress most probably Ouled Naïl again, who appear to be courting in very modest ways.
Even after he had converted to Islam, Dinet did paint some nudes, such as his Bather in the Palm Grove from 1916. Although this young woman has facial marking and headgear suggesting she might be an Ouled Naïl, in fact Dinet was unable to find a local model prepared to pose for him out of her clothes, and presumably resorted to recruiting one from a nearby town or city.
Several photographers visited the area in which the Ouled Naïl live, and some brought back images of nudes and what appeared to be erotic dancers, which were disseminated as images of authentic Ouled Naïl women. In fact, at least two series have turned out to show prostitutes working in nearby towns.
More reliable sources, such as the National Geographic Magazine, have published images like that above, which first appeared in 1917, showing A Dancer of the Cafés, Algeria (c 1917). Even so, its caption reads:
A DANCER OF THE CAFÉS, ALGERIA. Their faces clouded with a dark paint to increase the natural effect of the desert sun on their skin, their nails darkened with henna, and their cheeks faintly tattooed in blue to show their caste, these beauties of the Ouled Naïl tribe furnish much local color in the crowded cafés of Northern Africa. Their costumes are gorgeous and their heavy ornaments are largely of gold and silver coins.
As late as its 1956 edition, the Michelin Guide dismissed the Ouled Naïl as “mere courtesans and Oriental dancers”.
By the time that guide was published, Algeria had entered into a war lasting eight years, until it finally achieved independence from France in 1962.
Yet paintings of Orientalist fantasy are still revered in major collections around the world, while those shown here are neglected and forgotten. Sex still sells paintings, and a large dash of fantasy sells even more. Over a century later.