Centre Pompidou unpacks the colonialism entrenched in its own photography collection from the critical interwar period of the 1930s

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Unframing Colonialism is an eye-opening exhibition curated by Damarice Amao, taking a critical look at how photography furthered the colonial project in France

A new exhibition at the Centre Pompidou takes a critical look at the tensions running through the photography scene in Paris in the 1930s. Titled Unframing Colonialism, the show draws on the 1931 Paris Colonial Exhibition in Vincennes, particularly the opposition to it by the Surrealist group, as its starting point. Outraged by the show’s blatant exploitation of the then French colonies’ culture and people, the Surrealists, including Man Ray, worked to expose the injustice, which included a counter exhibition titled The Truth about the Colonies. This Pompidou show is, in part, a continuation of what was shown there over 90 years ago.

VU n° 311 Hors-Série 'Colonisation' , 1934, impression photomécanique, coll. Bibliothèque Kandinsky, MNAM © Alexandre Liberman

The narrative of Unframing Colonialism winds through six core themes. Among them is ‘The Ethnography Show’, a section which details the renewed interest in ethnography during the period and the role photography played in it. Magazines and museums sent photographers all around the world to capture images of paradisal landscapes, marvelled at by readers back home in Europe, longing for an escape. They travelled further and further, namely in Africa and Tahiti, vying to capture authentic, never-before-seen imagery of ‘exotic’ life. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Marc Allégret were among them, but slowly became disillusioned with the colonial context and moved away from cliched assignments. Some cheaper, weekly magazines exaggerated the ‘exotic’ theme, publishing questionable stories on community folklore and tradition on violent behaviour and cannibalism.

In ‘Body Models’ the focus turns to the fetishisation and eroticism of Black bodies, “fuelled by the vogue of ‘negrophilia’ during the interwar period” as the exhibition text reads. A harrowing vitrine in the centre of the room displays dozens of archival magazine spreads depicting young, naked ‘women from the colonies’.

Montmartre, 1933 © Centre Pompidou, Mnam‐Cci Georges Meguerditchian/ Dist. RMN‐GP © Henri Cartier‐Bresson/Magnum Photos
Palmeraie, 1936 Infrarouge © Pierre Boucher Vers, Centre Pompidou, Mnam‐Cci Audrey Laurans/Dist. RMN‐GP © Fonds Pierre Boucher

Later we see a shift towards a narrative that focused on the economic and resource-led benefits of the French empire. A policy of assimilation over ‘othering’ ensued. Here, we see a presentation of portraits of colonised people by the more humanist lenses of André Steiner, Thérèse Le Prat and members of the Alliance-Photo agency. Finally, examples of a new documentary style by the likes of Eli Lotar and Jacques-André Boifard, who consciously criticised the colonial project in their images. Still, the exhibition’s overall sentiment does not shy away from stating that there was still a long way to go. 

At every turn, a strong emphasis is placed on the context of the image. Detailed captions elaborate on the author’s position, but also the circumstances under which the image was commissioned and taken, where and why it was first published, and how it was received. The press and its role in circulating visual propaganda is highlighted too. It makes for a rounded and critical viewing experience. Anti-colonialist essays and poems illuminated on screens intersperse the framed archives, collages and vinyls on the wall. Through headphones, one can listen to the audio recordings of Rocé and Casey – two French rappers whose personal work speaks to French colonial history and their experience of it – reading these texts.

Eli Lotar, (Sans Titre) Mazagan. Changement et transport de chanvre, vers 1933-1935 ©. MNAM/ Centre Pompidou.

“As the topic of decolonisation is discussed in this country, we as an institution must use critical tools to reflect on our collection. It’s our responsibility to face it.”


All the works come from the Pompidou’s photography department collection and the Biblioteque Kandinsky. Damarice Amao, curator of Photography at the Pompidou, says that this is an important aspect of this show. “It was not easy, as people are a little bit afraid,” she explains. “It’s a reflection [on the collection] that we have continued for some years, starting with a show called Photography as a Class Weapon, which we made four years ago. As the topic of decolonisation is discussed in this country, we as an institution must use critical tools to reflect on our collection. It’s our responsibility to face it.”

“I hope that people will understand the idea even if they are shocked,” Amao adds. “Some photographs here are not easy to view. Depending on your sensibility, you might be more shocked by one or two. But that is why a museum is the right place to do it. It’s a safe space to address it.”

Unframing Colonialism is on show at the Centre Pompidou until 27 February 2023

Izabela Radwanska Zhang

Starting out as an intern back in 2016, Izabela Radwanska Zhang is now the Editorial Director of British Journal of Photography in print and online. Her words have appeared in Disegno and Press Association. Prior to this, she completed a MA in Magazine Journalism at City University, London, and most recently, a Postgrad Certificate in Graphic Design at London College of Communication.