How French colonial advertising shaped Tunisian tourism, and how Tunisian artists reclaimed it
Starting in the late 19th century, travel advertising emerged to entice Westerners from metropolises to explore overseas colonies.
In this context, the travel art relationship between France and its former colony Tunisia offers an interesting viewpoint to examine how commercial advertising conveyed exotic depictions of distant lands and their inhabitants, and how this process reflected asymmetrical power dynamics and prejudice.
The inception of these travel campaigns was marked by French rail and maritime enterprises and the artists they employed who quickly established a thematic pattern for depicting a country or region.
"These [artistic] representations depicted Arabs as indolent and unaffected by modernity. Even in more modern portrayals, like the 1930 Tunis Air ad by French artist Jean Even, modernity is a French achievement, hovering above rather than grounded in the Tunisian land"
One prominent example was the renowned French rail company P.L.M — Chemins de fer Paris-Lyon-Méditerranée — that commissioned artist Frederic Hugo d'Alési to design a number of its posters.
The 1892 P.L.M. "France to Tunisie voyages circulaires" poster became iconic. In line with the prevailing style of the time, this poster showcased a captivating landscape with an inset vignette highlighting a point of interest, such as the Sidi Youssef Dey Mosque in Tunis.
An ornate litter mounted on a camel carries two French women, guided by a local handler. This poster beckons the French to embrace an experience starkly distinct from their familiar surroundings.
While P.L.M. operated train services in both France and Tunisia, the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique (French Line) managed sea routes across the Mediterranean to Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.
In 1925, the company enlisted Jeanne Thil, who had studied at the French Orientalist School and had extensively travelled North Africa in 1921.
Thil's experience and education exemplify the deep entwinement of colonialism with the production of travel posters. The Maghreb, ruled by France, facilitated exploration, and the Orientalist School was a tool for French imperialism.
Thil's work mirrored the prevalent motifs of her time, as evidenced in her drawing for CGT's campaign featuring three resting Bedouins against the backdrop of a village.
These representations depicted Arabs as indolent and unaffected by modernity. Even in more modern portrayals, like the 1930 Tunis Air ad by French artist Jean Even, modernity is a French achievement, hovering above rather than grounded in the Tunisian land.
While the depiction of the Orient sharply contrasts with the East, it's important to note that many parts of the Maghreb shared similarities.
Within the Maghreb, stunning Medinas featured beautifully constructed dwellings and palaces. The landscape, especially in Tunisia and Algeria, showcased a lush coastline reminiscent of the northern Mediterranean.
The region was also home to native artisans and writers. However, for Tunisia to captivate the imagination of potential travellers, it needed to present an exotic allure. The travel posters conveyed a separation between France and its southern territories.
"The travel art relationship between France and its former colony Tunisia offers an interesting viewpoint to examine how commercial advertising conveyed exotic depictions of distant lands and their inhabitants, and how this process reflected asymmetrical power dynamics and prejudice"
To underscore the notion of these being distinct realms, the Maghreb was often veiled, serving as a metaphor for how Western writers depicted the Arab-Islamic world – enigmatic and impenetrable.
The veil symbolises that only the expert orientalist can unveil its mysteries, or that an understanding can only be achieved through personal experience.
This narrative also aligns with a common orientalist trope: The West is characterised by literacy and reason while the East is best comprehended viscerally rather than analytically.
The essence of this perspective is embodied in P.L.M's "Visitez La Tunisie" poster (1935). The Western gaze is also evident in other veil-centric tourism advertisements, such as the 1950 advertisement from Marseille-based Compagnie de Navigation Mixte, which offered cruise travel for both French and Maghrebis and a 1947 poster published by the pied-noir colonial government in Algiers.
Transitioning to the postcolonial era, it's evident that many colonial motifs endured and were adopted by Tunisia's national tourism office. This alignment is unsurprising, as the target audience – the French – remains constant.
Independent Tunisia is now inviting the French to rediscover the nation for leisure.
In a snapshot from the 1950s, a European woman lounges on a beach while two veiled Arab women walk in the background.
The ad invites the French to experience an exotic culture where the locals differ from the visitors. The veil symbol recurs in a 1966 Tunisian tourism ad tailored for Italian travellers.
Paradoxically, while the Bourguiba regime pushed Tunisian women to unveil, its tourism agency partnered with the Italian state tourism office to promote orientalist fantasies.
In contemporary times, Tunisia remains portrayed as sparsely inhabited, reflecting the shift from the colonial era's land ripe for exploration to today's land ripe for enjoyment.
Remarkably, these ads often lack Tunisian cultural elements. With minimal Arab or Islamic representation, the posters subtly convey that Muslim or Arab aspects are undesirable to Western audiences.
These campaigns are still driven by Western agencies, advertising their interpretation of Tunisia to fellow Westerners. (The ad campaign was designed by Leo Burnett Paris.)
This raises the question of how Tunisia is portrayed when the audience is Tunisian. Here, we're not considering domestic tourism advertisements for Tunisians but rather the emergence of mass-produced art influenced by early tourism ads.
The brand Koshk Glibett, represented by artists Zeineb Ben Haouala, Assala Chouk, Noha Habaieb, and Sonia Bensalem, stands out. Their vibrant map posters possess elements reminiscent of tourism ads yet deviate from selling travel.
Instead, they celebrate life through depictions of dance, song, Islamic monuments, ancient ruins, shorelines, and deserts.
While Western artists shaped the narrative for a long time, contemporary Tunisian artists are redefining their cultural identity on their terms.
Khelil Bouarrouj is a Washington, DC-based writer and civil rights advocate. His work can be found in the Washington Blade, Palestine Square, and other publications