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Aurès, 1935: Remarkable documents of an ethnographic mission


An exhibition at the Pavillon Populaire de Montpellier is showing a selection of photographs taken by two young researchers, Thérèse Rivière et Germaine Tillion, during an ethnographic mission in the Aurès from 1935 onwards. Situated in the east of Algeria on the edge of the Sahara, the Aurès, a harsh massif traversed by gorges, was home for some sixty thousand Chaouia a Berber population preserving an agro-pastoral economy, organised around communal granaries, the guelâa. Unlike the other regions of Algeria, this area had not suffered massively from the colonial expropriation of indigenous lands and for a long time was portrayed as a “rebel mountain”.

The place of an uprising against military conscription in 1916, it would be, from 1st November 1954, one of the epicentres of the independence struggle. At that time the French army tried the policy of “rounding up” village populations, which ended up destabilising a society that Germaine Tillon had already observed had been clearly “turned into beggars” between 1935 and 1954.

Like the famous Dakar-Djibouti mission (1931-1933) led by the ethnologists Michel Leiris and Marcel Griaule in sub-Saharan Africa or Claude Lévi-Strauss’ Amazonian expedition (1934), the long investigation of these two researchers was carried out in the name of the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro (which became the Museum of Mankind in 1937). Thérèse Rivière dedicated herself to the study of material activities and  domestic economy and Germaine Tillion to relationship of kinship and power, which would later be addressed  in her books Le Harem et les cousins (1966) and Il était une fois l’ethnographie (2000).

Evidence of ethnological practice in the 1930s, the photographs taken by Thérèse Rivière et Germaine Tillion during a mission carried out over several years in the Aurès, lets us see a traditional society still preserved, and the difference of the views the two researchers brought to it. They also return to the source of Germaine Tillion’s commitment to Algeria after 1954 and her thoughts about ethnology”, explains Christian Phéline, the exhibition’s curator.

Long forgotten, the mass of still and moving images, the graphic survey, the sound recordings, the field notes then gathered and the thousands of objects added by them to the museum’s collections are the measure of the exceptional observational task accomplished by these two outstanding field ethnographers. Beyond the choice of photographs shown here, at the end of the exhibition there is a remarkable series of facsimiles of drawings collected by Thérèse Rivière among the children and adults in several villages of the region.

This view of Aurèsian society at that time by the two young women can be likened to the approach of the Farm Security Administration programme, with the Americans Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and others , committed at the same time, to document with images and texts the social situation of the poor peasantry hit by the Great Depression of the 1930s in the southern United States. Continuing an already long tradition in the portrayal of the Aurès people, their photographic practice imposes an individuality of view, peculiar to each of them.

Beyond their original documentary and pedagogical intention, the presentation of their photographs today invites a re-evaluation of ethnographic practice and a rediscovery of the face of a traditional society soon to be disrupted by confrontations during the years 1954-1962, at the same time reinstating these images in a photographic history aesthetic and social.



Aurès, 1935 : Photographies de Thérèse Rivière et Germaine Tillion
From 7th February to 15th April 2018
Pavillon Populaire
Esplanade Charles-de-Gaulle
34000 Montpellier

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