By Damali and Nii B. Andrews.
Today, the Haik that has been worn for centuries is often the subject of less than complimentary commentary and attitudes.
All over the world, traditional dress is undergoing change and certainly not always for the better.
A perfect example is the Ghanaian smock; recently it has on occasion reached the levels of a tasteless costume when worn by those we expect to know better!
Often times, the “authentic” traditional garments gradually disappear or become debased without a comprehensve inventory even being in place.
Lack of knowledge of the real tradition is then replaced by a cheap exoticism.
This is where the memory of the French psychiatrist, photographer and painter; Gaëtan de Clérambault lives on.
He painstakingly documented with almost FIVE THOUSAND photographs the traditional dress of the Maghreb in the early 20th century.
Other photographers of this genre included Lehnert and Landrock, Bonfils and Leroux.
Clérambault focused on the draping of the fabrics for the women in the Haik.
He eschewed the exotic and erotic flourishes of the orientalist painters; his subjects were no odalisques.
By highlighting the flow and forms of the cloth – the drapery, the women’s bodies appeared to disappear in his photos.
Clérambault even went as far as declaring, “the drapery is like the psyche: the study of the surfaces reveals the secret of profound structures”.
Certainly, there can be no unanimity with respect to the deep meaning that he attributed to the Haik.
Some writers have charged him with an obstinate and perhaps obsessive passion for women draped in fabric.
It has been suggested that the photos relate to death and “a fixation with arranging these women’s bodies, freezing them on his glossy paper like corpses stiff with death, stilled in the ritual folds of veils become white shrouds”.
In short, there are opposing viewpoints on the motivation of the photographer and the import of the photos.
Furthermore, there is a stark contra- distinction between Clérambault’s women and those taken of forcibly unveiled women by Marc Garanger.
The latter’s photos show the defiant look or “evil eye” cast by his subjects to protect themselves and curse their enemies.
The photos of the women in Haik also reference contemporary perspectives on rebellion, oppression, social politics, female agency and context.
There is no denying that these are photographs of real people who led lives of internal coherence and meaning.
Sadly, the numerous drawings Clérambault made have been lost; long scattered together with his large library.
His photographs were also lost until only 400 of them that had been bequeathed to the Museé de l’Homme in Paris were rediscovered, restored and exhibited at the Centre Georges Pompidou in 1990.
And of course, some remember him for the Clérambault Syndrome which he described.
Clérambault was an artist who saw and recorded for posterity the sublime poetry of Haik drapery; he was also a pioneering psychiatrist.