In Painting, African Women’s Burden Carries a Deeper Meaning

Image of the Week: A 19th-century French artist captures the complexities of labor in Algeria’s nomadic societies.

IOW-Fromentin.Femmes arabes.The Root
Eugène Fromentin, Femmes arabes en voyage (“Arab Women Under Way”), 1873. Oil on wood, 49.5 by 61.6 cm.

Menil Collection, Houston

This image is part of a weekly series that The Root is presenting in conjunction with the Image of the Black in Western Art Archive at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

A large group of dark-skinned women bend under heavy loads carried on their backs. They walk briskly up a slope, a magnificent sunset radiating behind them. A closer examination of the artist’s experience in the new French colony of Algeria expands our view of their presence in a land not always of their own choosing but one that they nevertheless were instrumental in shaping.

This painting is by the French artist Eugène Fromentin, celebrated for his “Orientalist” views of North Africa and the Middle East. His fascination with these exotic lands began in 1846, when he decided on the spur of the moment to attend a friend’s wedding in Algeria. The French colonization of this verdant stretch of the North African coast had begun in the early 1830s. Soon the area was to be administered as an integral part of France, a situation that would end only with the colony’s achievement of independence in 1962.

Fromentin was immediately taken with the climate and its people. For him this was the real Africa, as he wrote, “with its camel caravans, its palm tree forests and its [native] population nearly intact.” He strove to record his impressions both in sketches and in words, keeping a journal that he considered an indispensable part of his work.

The information he recorded in paint and prose during this brief period served him well for the next 25 years. Until his death in 1876, Fromentin turned out a steady stream of variations on key themes, constantly winning the praise of professional critics. The work shown here is dated 1873, many years after his departure from the colony.

Fromentin returned to Algeria in early 1848, this time ready to more assiduously observe the land and its people. In March he left the relatively familiar environment of Algiers on the coast to venture well into the interior. He journeyed to the oasis town of Biskra in the northeastern part of Algeria. Known as the gateway to the Sahara, the town had only recently been occupied by the French. There he joined a local Arab sheikh on his habitual nomadic journeys.

For Fromentin, this was a truly revelatory experience. He stayed long enough to witness typical moments of his host’s passage through the varied terrain of the uplands, such as the crossing of shallow streams, the setting up and striking of the tents, and, as seen here, the vital daily routine of securing provisions for a whole village on the move. This last activity is the subject of Fromentin’s painting seen here, Arab Women Under Way.

The work seems to have borne that title since its inception. At first the dark complexions and pronounced sub-Saharan features of some of the women would seem inconsistent with this characterization. Rather than a simple misnomer, however, the notion of the women as Arabs operates on a broader level of social acculturation and acquisition of labor. The situation of these women discloses the complex patterns of inclusion within Arabic nomadic life of people of distinctly different origins. The women help define the traditional role of service, including slavery, performed by non-Arabs, as well as the changes brought to this situation by French colonization.

Another painting by Fromentin, made several years earlier, puts the labor of these women in its full context. It is descriptively titled Tribe on the Move, Crossing a Ford. In this larger treatment of the subject, the same dark-shinned women appear within the overall tableau of a village moving with its flocks to new grazing land. They bring up the rear of a long line of figures, many on horseback, who wend their way through a vast plain toward a line of distant, blue-tinged mountains. The setting is that of the Aurès range, the eastern end of the mighty chain of peaks marking the northern extent of the great Sahara desert.

During the time of Fromentin’s second trip to Algeria, the political situation in France underwent a signal change. Shortly before his departure, the long-troubled monarchy of Louis-Philippe fell to more democratic impulses. On April 14, 1848, shortly after the artist’s arrival in Algeria, the provisional government of the new regime abolished slavery in all its overseas possessions. The administrators of colonial Algeria were instructed to enforce the decree immediately, an initiative that proved more daunting than anticipated.

Fromentin’s view of these women provides a concise visual corollary to the host of colonial documents concerning the labor situation in the new colony, both voluntary and coerced. Their ethnic diversity reflects the age-old influx of slaves from various regions below the sandy reaches of the Sahara. Once acquired by purchase or trade, slaves became incorporated within a social structure that allowed a much greater degree of navigation within it than was the case in the New World. Slaves were a universal part of the labor force, employed in sedentary locations such as urban dwellings and farms or, as seen here, as part of nomadic societies.

Even as slaves, women could attain relatively high status within their new environment. Many served as common slaves, but some became concubines of the local sheikh, or tribal leader. Children born of such unions were often recognized by their fathers and liberated, subsequently taking their place within the order of tribal leadership.

Given this consideration, the situation of the women seen in Fromentin’s painting becomes clearer. Though of different ethnicities, they have been assimilated within the order of the nomadic tribe as people with specific roles to play. All wear similar clothing and the same types of ornaments and perform much the same tasks. Hard labor does not in itself indicate their enslaved status, since Arab women also led strenuous lives, according to contemporary observers. Some of the women in the group may, in fact, be free, but the influx of new slaves seems to have been considered vital for the sustenance of the tribe.

Despite the formal proclamation of abolition by the French government, a de facto state of slavery persisted in Algeria well into the 20th century. In neighboring areas of North Africa, human beings, especially women, are still bound by traditional laws of bondage. To the mute testimony of his paintings, Fromentin appends only an appreciation of the women’s capacity for labor in his published comments. So close to the colonial agenda of development, the avid student of this new land could record but not indict the behavior of those who inhabited it.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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