Ahlam Shibli احلام شبلي

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© Ahlam Shibli
Ahlam Shibli — TRAUMA

Uncovering the Visible

Adania Shibli, 2010

Usually a photograph selects a moment in such a way that at first glance it seems to exclude from its frame both the past and the future. Yet Trauma counters this idea and in its place it presents the photographed moment as a meeting point between the invisible past and future. The work does this by relying on the photographs themselves, nothing else. These photographs deconstruct the depicted moment and its appearance as eternal or timeless by tracing it in a web of intertwined historical events.

A group of photographs in Trauma contemplates memorial monuments on which the names are inscribed of those morts pour la patrie in specific periods: 1914–1918 and 1939–1945. Some of these monuments go even further in specifying the time period as 7th–9th June, 1944, or specifying the place: Indochina or Algeria.

In other photographs walls, balconies, lamp posts and gravestones appear upon which some of those names are inscribed together with the note that they belong to persons who perished at the hands of the Nazis in the period from the 7th–9th June. As philosopher Henri Lefebvre indicated, these walls, balconies and lamp posts, just like the memorial monuments, do not perish with time, like humans, but rather overcome and defeat it. Accordingly they make the names of those they bear, and the events to which these names are linked, timeless and eternal. At the same time, these monuments, walls, balconies and graves seldom appear on their own in the photographs. Most of the time they are surrounded by individuals and objects: ordinary citizens, soldiers, politicians, guns, flags, and bouquets of flowers, all of which imply that commemoration rites are performed at that moment. In particular the fresh and glowing flowers placed next to the monuments, balconies and lamp posts emphasise that what the stone monuments announce as timeless in fact exists in the present time: now.

7th–9th June and onwards

At six o’clock in the morning of the 9th June, 1944, German SS forces rounded up more than two thousand men between the ages of sixteen and sixty in Tulle and led them to the arms factory in the town, where many of them worked. On that day, the workshops of the factory and the roads connecting its facilities turned into a court that witnessed a process of sorting that went on for hours. The crowd of detainees was divided into three lines. Those standing in a particular line would not know their fate until later that day. The detainees in one line would then be released. While two thirds of those in the second line would be released a few days later, one third of them would be loaded onto a train headed for the Dachau concentration camp. Not all of those in the train, however, would even succeed in reaching that destination, as many would die during the journey. Only 48 out of the 149 deported would return to Tulle after the end of the war, and all they would have with them would be a striped clothing. On its left, close to the heart, this clothing was decorated with a red triangle and a number above it composed of five digits. The detainees standing in the third line would neither go home nor to the concentration camp. Instead, they would be led to a square only a few hundred metres away from the arms factory. All 99 standing in that line would be hanged from the balconies of homes and shops, from lamp posts on the bridge and in the nearby streets.

The names of those men from Tulle who were executed or died during deportation when France was straining under the weight of the German occupation are distributed, in alphabetical order, over several monuments. The names of the 99 men who were hanged appear on a single monument, the names of the 101 who died during deportation on another one, and on a third might appear the 200 names of both groups. Apart from these names, some monuments immortalise the memory of those who perished while outside their own country, in Indochina and Algeria, when these countries were, in their turn, straining under the weight of the French occupation.

Yet it is not the monuments alone that attempt to unite the different groups of those morts pour la patrie, the oppressors and the oppressed, and to immortalise their memory together. In one of the photographs, several submachine guns appear behind the glass of a display window, each muzzle pointed in a different direction. Two of the guns that lie behind the glass — one a British-made STEN and the other a French copy of the STEN — were used by the fighters of the Résistance against the German occupation forces during the Second World War. Other guns are German-made and were used by the German army during their invasion of France in the both World Wars. There are also some MAT-49s manufactured in Tulle after the departure of the German occupiers from the city. They were used by the French forces in their different wars, specifically in Indochina and Algeria during the period of French colonisation. In one way or another, the act of bringing together all these submachine guns in the same vitrine draws a parallel, or even establishes a parity, between the goals and roles they performed, whether during the Second World War or during the Indochina and Algerian Wars. The work Trauma not only uncovers this parity but comes to contemplate its implications under the camera lens, and at times under the magnifying glass.

Tulle — Indochina — Algeria

One of the photographs features a man in his seventies. This man — a former soldier, called Guy Piron, who participated in France’s wars in Indochina and North Africa — is looking at a photograph in a magazine placed on the table before him in which what looks like corpses piled on top of each other can be seen. Guy Piron’s hands are not holding the magazine near his eyes in order to look at the photograph close up; they are not holding it at all. His left hand rests on the arm of his chair, while his right hand is suspended in the air, half-opened. The distance that separates the photograph from Piron’s hands, especially the one that is suspended in the air, half-opened, actually discloses how much Piron does not wish to touch that photograph, or even to look closely at what appears in it. The absence of any such desire in turn implies that the spectator knows well what is shown there — the caption accompanying the photograph indicates that Piron, in response to the photographer’s question as to whether he knew whose corpses were those, said, after a moment of silence, that they were people killed during a massacre committed in a Tunisian village by a squad of French soldiers of whom he was part; he was among them. In reality the corpses in the photograph are of people killed in a Nazi concentration camp.

Another photograph depicts a hand holding a magnifying glass, while the other hand holds a very small photograph which appears to show a long line of men being led into what resembles the desert. Looking at the small photograph with the help of a magnifying glass may indicate that the viewer did not scrutinise it closely, or maybe did not even look at it before. If this is indeed so, what could be the reasons behind this delay in seeing?

This photograph and another in which similar small images appear scattered exhibit a number of pictures that the viewer had taken during his time as a soldier in the ranks of the French forces during the Algerian War.


René Lavigne, a former soldier married to Andrée — a daughter of Sylvain Combes, who was deported to a German concentration camp in 1943 where he died — looking at photos showing actions of his detachment in the Algerian War.
— Tulle, 7th June, 2008.
Ahlam Shibli

However, not only photographs were kept hidden to help remain forgotten what the French forces had done in Algeria, but also simple objects connected to the memory of participants in those wars. In one photograph, Marcel Salgues displays a rug featuring three cavaliers on their horses. In the foreground of the picture a table can be seen on which cavaliers, made from plastic, are displayed. Clearly, the ones on the table had been there before the camera entered the room. They would probably also remain there after it left, whereas the horses and cavaliers on the rug seem to have been brought out from their hiding place only for the camera’s sake. And as the closet door – left half open in the background of that photograph – suggests, they will return there as soon as the camera has left the room. Marcel bought this rug as a soldier in Algeria.


Marcel Salgues, a veteran of the Algerian War, unfolding with his wife, Odette, a carpet he brought with him from Algeria during his military service.
— Lachaud d’Albussac, 21st June, 2008.
Ahlam Shibli

The depiction of the contrast between what is displayed in the open and what is kept covert summons the invisible past to the visible present. This is something methodically repeated in other pictures of the series. For example, in the photograph depicting two French ladies, Concepción Le Guen and her daughter Claudine, who lived in Algeria during the French colonial period, the invisible past is unearthed and displayed once again in the present. Yet this is not all. In the photographs that come to the surface in this process of excavation, the French coloniser would commonly appear in the foreground, while the Algerians, along with everything tied to their existence, would be pushed away into the background, made secondary and marginalised.

It is true that until the last century the invisible, that which was visually secondary and marginalised, symbolised power. The best example of this are the paintings that depict the annunciation of Mary’s conception of Christ and where the presence of God is expressed as a small dove, or Velazquez’s painting Las Meninas, where the king around whom the scene revolves, appears as a faint reflection in a small mirror in the background of that painting. Given that the main concern has nowadays become to render everything visible, the visible has become synonymous with the powerful and the invisible amounts to the non-existent. In Trauma, however, the camera challenges the recent order of visibility. It approaches its lens to the scenes and individuals that appear in the background of some of the photographs taken by the French colonisers to look into their world from very close.

Algeria — Indochina — Tulle

Odette and Georges Claux are a couple of Pieds-Noirs. Saliha and Abdenour Bellil with their daughter Nora and their son Anis are a family of Algerian immigrants in France. They all are shown sitting together in one of the photographs. And even though they are gathered in a single small space, each one is looking in a different direction. Odette is looking in the direction of Saliha and Saliha in her direction; Nora is perhaps also looking at Odette, but she must be seeing something else. Unlike her classmates in school, Nora is the only one who sees the word Algeria carved in the monument that immortalises the memory of some of the students and staff of her school, who died in the French wars in the previous century.

The men in the photograph, in contrast to the women, are not looking at each other. Georges looks at a point outside the photograph; both Abdenour and his son, their heads bowed, look at their own hands. Abdenour still remembers the oppression and persecution he witnessed in his childhood — perhaps when he was the same age as his son Anis — at the hands of the French during the Algerian War of Liberation. In another photograph, Abdenour re-enacts how the French used to detain Algerians — they would tie their hands behind their backs and push down their heads, so that the faces of the detainees could not be seen, and neither could they see the faces of their captors. From his childhood days, Abdenour also remembers how the women in his family, when they heard that French forces were going to raid the village, would rush to the cattle pen and smear themselves with dung, so that whenever the French soldiers tried to sexually assault them, they would be disgusted by their filthy smell and turn away.

Saïda Amarouche, whose father came from Algeria to work in France in the 1930s, remembers how the children in school used to call her ‘dirty Arab’. In the living room of her home, on one of the shelves to Saïda’s right, a small navy-blue board rests like those used to display street names in France. Actually, such boards appear also in other photographs, bearing the names of streets named after martyrs from the Second World War. Sometimes the same wall may also carry additional plaques commemorating those who were killed at that place. But the board on the shelf to Saïda’s right bears the name Rue des Sans-Papiers.

Those without papers, and in this case even without a face, have no place in the memory devoted to the victims of French wars in the previous century, including the victims of the 9th June, 1944. The first name that appears in the list of those who were hanged that day is, in fact, that of Ahmed ben Mohamed. While sufficient facts are available about 98 of those hanged, some of whom were reburied in the Puy Saint- Clair cemetery in Tulle after the end of the war, nobody knows much about the identity of Ahmed ben Mohamed, his relatives, or where he was reburied. Perhaps in the Rue des Sans-Papiers?

However, the camera is not the only one that tries to challenge invisibility, which has now come to equal non-existence; the invisible attempts to challenge this condition on its own.

With all the power it can summon up, Thin Kieu’s left hand clings to a photograph from 1946 of the inauguration of a memorial, in honour of a Vietnamese infantryman who fell in the Second World War for France, the country in which Thin Kieu lives now, while his right hand — with all the power it can summon up – holds the edge of his pants to stop them from sliding down. The French authorities, who handed him a document stating that he came as a ‘voluntary worker’, brought Thin Kieu against his will to France to work in a weapons factory.

Thin Kieu’s left hand, which is clinging to the photograph, brings back to mind Guy Piron’s half-opened right hand, suspended in the air and refraining from holding the photograph of the piled-up corpses. So, in opposition to his reluctance to touch the photographed past, implied by Piron’s half-opened hand suspended in the air, in Kieu’s case there is a desire to cling to the past. For images of the past of the oppressor, as in the first case, are tantamount to a confrontation with this past. For the oppressed, as in the second case, images of the past are visual evidence of the oppression they suffered, and therefore, they must be held on to as much as possible.

The desire to collect photographs as visual evidence that narrates and pays homage to the history of the Vietnamese who were forcibly recruited by France, was passed on to Thuong Dang, the son of another Indochinese ‘volunteer’ recruited during the First World War, who created a private photographic archive in his home. In addition to the photographic archive, Dang built an archive made of plants. He created a garden following the Eastern style, which can be nothing but a homage to his parents’ past lives in Vietnam, just like the flowers that are used in the June celebrations to commemorate victims from France, among them soldiers who were killed in different places including Indochina.

By uncovering the visible and that which it concurrently renders invisible, in the end, Trauma honours, without the least discrimination, those commemorated by the monuments as well as those not commemorated. In fact, the images present both the visible and the invisible, as if one were a reflection of the other. And thus, the photographs turn into a sort of labyrinth of mirrors; the moment one enters it, one is neither capable of distinguishing between what was supposed to be visible from what was destined to remain invisible, nor the original from the reflection.

This essay was published in:

Shibli, Ahlam. Trauma. Exh. cat. Tulle: Peuple et Culture Corrèze, 2010. (Essays by: Ulrich Loock, Adania Shibli, and Manée Teyssandier.)

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