Orientalism: Taking and Making
Hyams Gallery, New Orleans Museum of Art (May 2014 - ongoing)
"Orientalism" describes the widespread popularity of European and American artists taking inspiration from art and people--both real and imagined--of Middle Eastern, North African, and East Asian cultures. The nineteenth-century Western art in this gallery celebrates the diversity and progress made through worldwide trade and transportation networks, but it also resonates with undercurrents of oppression, racism, and superficial understanding of complex cultures.
Until the 1800s, European contact with Eastern cultures was through limited trade and occasional military conflict. In 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte's army invaded and occupied Egypt until 1801. In 1854, Commodore Perry's American war ships arrived in Tokyo Bay to force an end to Japan's sakoku policy of isolationism. The British Empire controlled 400 million people, including the 1858 to 1947 "British Raj" rule of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Western fashion for Egyptomania, Orientalism, and Japonisme is rooted in imperialism.
Artists often traveled with a genuine desire to accurately record and disseminate architecture, geography, fashion, and customs. But what they recorded was often seen through a lens conditioned by Western values and ambitions. As a result, their artwork often presented non-Westerners in negative ways—as lazy, barbaric, or hyper-sexualized. Their impressions were informed by broad and harmful assumptions about the people they visited. Instead of merely taking an impression, Orientalist artists were making new identities that were, at the very least, inaccurate.
Orientalist vision was powerful in the West because it was both titillating and aesthetically alluring. Academically, this material gives us complicated and conflicted material to consider our own history, and how exoticism continues to color the ways we view other cultures today.
"[This] is the main intellectual issue raised by Orientalism. Can one divide human reality...into clearly different cultures, histories, traditions, societies, even races, and survive the consequences humanly?... I mean to ask whether there is any way of avoiding the hostility expressed by the division, say, of men into "us" (Westerners) and "they" (Orientals). - Edward Said, Orientalism, 1978