Orientalist art legacy on display in rare exhibition at British Museum

Karen Dabrowska, The Arab Weekly, October 26, 2019

bjects from Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa highlight a centuries-old tradition of influence and exchange from East to West.


LONDON - Perceptions of the Islamic world in Western art through many centuries are on display in “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art,” a rare exhibition at London’s British Museum.


Curators Julia Tugwell and Olivia Threlkeld said artistic exchange between East and West has a long and intertwined history and that the exhibition focuses on cultural interactions from the 15th century till today.


Objects from Europe, North America, the Middle East and North Africa highlight a centuries-old tradition of influence and exchange from East to West. The diverse selection of objects includes ceramics, photography, glass, jewellery and clothing as well as contemporary art, the curators said in a news release.


“Orientalism was one of the defining elements of the 19th and 20th centuries, comparable to other ‘isms’ like surrealism and impressionism,” said Threlkeld. “This exhibition provides a rare opportunity in the UK to see these important artworks from South-east Asia’s largest museum, the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, and to think about Orientalism’s impact on the history of art and its legacy.”


Lines between fantasy and reality are often blurred in the West’s perception of the Orient. As an art movement Orientalism reached its height during the 19th century when Western artists began visiting the Middle East and North Africa in greater numbers.


Palestinian-American author Edward Said’s 1978 book “Orientalism” questioned the ways in which the West has envisaged and misrepresented the East in culture. He criticised the often over-romanticised and inaccurate representations, particularly through literature and extending into politics.


He defined the Orient as being the place of Europe’s greatest, richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilisation and languages, its cultural contestant and one of its deepest and most recurring images of the Other.


The exhibition is divided into five sections: Origins of Orientalism, Popular Culture, an Imagined Orient, Reorientations and Disorient.


The section on Popular Culture shows how craft workers in Britain, France, Italy and Austria-Hungary created their own version of older Islamic metalwork. Glass and ceramics were often copied with varying degrees of accuracy.


This taste was fuelled by a wider and artistic interest in the Islamic World, expressed through its stories, especially “One Thousand and One Nights.” Such depictions of the Middle East and North Africa led artists and their customers to believe in imagined, rather than real peoples and places.


On display is an imitation of an Iznik plate from the 17th century. Iznik was a centre of high-quality pottery production for centuries. The distinctive floral designs were popular on tiles that decorated the inside of buildings during the Ottoman period (14th-20th century).


There are magnificent works in ink, watercolour and oil in the Imagined Orient section. Charles Henri Joseph Cordier, the official ethnographic sculptor for the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, created a silvered bronze and marble statue of an Arab sheikh in Cairo in 1867. Many of the works have impressive Orientalist-style frames with patterns referenced from Islamic art and architecture. Others use Arabic script. Inscriptions from the 14th-century Alhambra palace in Granada (Spain) often inspired the design of Orientalist frames.


The Reorientations section shows photographs from the Ottoman empire’s first photo studio in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in 1857 by Pascal Sebah a pioneering Ottoman photographer. He produced photographs for the tourist market, profiting from the demand for souvenirs among visitors from Europe and North America.


Also on display is “Traditional Clothing of Turkey” published in 1973. Made for the Vienna World Fair, the authors intended the album to showcase the variety of peoples in the Ottoman Empire through their clothing.


The exhibition concludes with Disorient by presenting four contemporary reactions to the imagery of Orientalism. These works include Inci Eviner’s 2009 video “Harem” and Lalla Essaydi’s “Women of Morocco” triptych, which answers the Orientalists’ representations of the East, subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists.


Essaydi’s triptych is from a series of photographs in which she reimagines harem paintings of 19th century Orientalism and replaces the bright colours, nudity and luxury of such paintings with monochrome settings, fully clothed women and strings of Arabic letters. Women are active agents rather than passive objects subjected to voyeuristic imaginings of western artists.


“This major exhibition highlights just how extensive and enduring the cultural exchange between the West and the Islamic world has been,” British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer said in a release. “It is an artistic relationship which has endured for five centuries and has influenced an astonishing diversity of material culture.”


“Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art” will be on display at the British Museum in London through January 26.