Orientalism (Cut and Cover)
“Tangier [Morocco] is the spot we have been longing for all the time...We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly foreign—foreign from top to bottom—foreign from center to circumference—foreign inside and outside and all around—nothing anywhere about it to dilute its foreignness—nothing to remind us of any other people or any other land under the sun. And lo! In Tangier we have found it...I am glad to have seen Tangier—the second-oldest town in the world." - Mark Twain
When Napoleon invaded Egypt, he opened the gates for French artists like Gérôme and Ingres to travel to and paint North Africa. There, they found themselves fascinated with the harsh desert landscapes, the intricate tile-covered architecture, the foreign cultural and religious practices, and the modestly concealed women. They returned to France with countless studies and paintings of the near east, illustrating the undiscovered beauty, strangeness, and brutality they witnessed on their travels, and consequently popularizing the phenomenon of Orientalism. But these paintings invaded and demoralized the people, and especially the women, of the Middle East and North Africa. These European men would not only enter private female spaces, but record them, and display them in a public foreign space, to be gazed upon by more European men.
In Islam, public spaces are inherently masculine and private spaces are feminine, as Lalla Essaydi explores frequently in her photographic practice. If a space is inhabited by only women, it is an especially sacred space because the second a man enters it, it becomes public. This is one reason why Muslim women wear hijabs; this allows them to remain in a private space, concealed from men at any time. These spaces provide protection. So not only a man, but a foreigner, enters them and takes their likeness and shares them with other men, completely destroying the sacred space they created. He sees the modest woman and immediately feels entitled to unwrap and document what he was previously deprived of.
I did not know this the first time I saw an Orientalist painting. I stared the first time I saw Vernet-Lecomte’s A Jewess of Morocco, on a field trip to a nearby museum. I recognized her dark eyebrows, and her decorated takchita, and the tilework behind her. I read the title, and felt immense joy seeing my father’s country in the title. I had only ever seen pale, blushing, European figures being painted with such care and attention. Seeing Ingres’s La Grande Odalisque from College Board's AP Art History canon only thrilled me more.
I decided to revisit La Grande Odalisque a couple years after learning about the Louvre from a History of Museums class at VCU. I read about how Napoleon used the Louvre to show the citizens of France his wide reach and power, and started actually thinking about what a nude painting of a Middle Eastern woman surrounded by vague Eastern objects played into that. It didn’t take much research to start thinking critically about how Ingres deformed her body, adding extra vertebrae and elongating or shortening limbs to achieve a perfect composition, and how that might hint towards the respect he has towards his foreign muses.
My first instinct was to amplify it, and make it both more obvious and more current to the Orientalism we have today. Today, Orientalism manifests in sexy belly dancer costumes, boho and hippie fashions, scantily clad disney princesses, hijab pornos, and Indiana Jones movies. Just as it was in the nineteenth century, the Middle East is mysterious, foreign, dangerous, and kinda sexy. so , to try and digest my feelings with this, I repainted La Grande Odalisque, but bright blue, shiny, and covered in the gold coins of a belly dancer’s skirt. I wanted her to exemplify the commodification of an Arab woman’s body, just like the objects that lie advertised next to her. It didn’t take me long to realize I took the wrong approach. If the thing I was upset about was her being nude, fetishized and exposed, what would doing the exact same thing do? Was my version any better than Ingres’s? When I started researching Jean Leon Gérôme, I started to explore ways to conceal them, so as to maybe restore some of their privacy.
I also thought about art in the Middle East, and how maybe I could reconfigure their portraits in their language of art, which as you might guess, is most notably their fantastic tilework. In Islam, it is completely forbidden to create any images in the likeness of Allah or the prophet Muhammad. This is because it reduces their soul to a tangible image. Some scholars even extend this to all people, and discourage any figurative representational art. So perhaps, a more nonrepresentational approach to depicting them might be required.
I combed through a book of Gérôme paintings, and when I saw one that particularly interested me, I would make a painting inspired by shapes, lines, and colors I could find, instead of copying them directly. If I were to start a master copy, I would pivot and use the patterns I discovered to cover them with paint and patterns, and make their bodies less legible. Then, I turned to cutting, so that I could use the actual paintings, and manipulate their legibility myself. I returned to the belly dancer coins, and used those to cover them, simultaneously concealing them and highlighting the change in Orientalism as it continues today.
But through all of the ways I have tried to digest Orientalism, I still find myself drawn to them. I still admire them the same way I did when I first found them as a high schooler. There is immense care and love placed into the brush strokes that make up the patterned walls and textiles. Obviously these artists admired these buildings with the same wonder and awe that I do when I visit Morocco. I feel strangely connected to these superficial representations of North Africa. I have always felt severed from my culture in most ways, except for my appearance. I have the same thick hair, dark eyes, and olive skin as my cousins in Morocco, and the women in Gérôme paintings. I will always be perceived as an Arab woman (or, to those who don’t know better, something vaguely ethnic). But, like an Orientalist painting, I lack the context and understanding of my fathers homeland. When I visit my family in Morocco, I am a tourist. I stumble over my high school French to try and communicate with my cousins. A lot of my knowledge of Morocco and Islam is through google searches, not cultural exposure.
It didn’t help that as I started to study artists through my art history classes, Morocco particularly came up frequently as a place of inspiration. Many creatives, including Eugene Delacroix, Henri Matisse, Yves St Laurent, Winston Churchill, Paul Bowles, Cy Twombly, and George Orwell visited Morocco and cited their travels to Morocco as major inspirations. There is a large fascination of the west with the east’s mystic power to heal and inspire. There is a certain otherworldliness that they experience, and bring home to include in their work. But they don’t realize that highlighting this otherworldliness only further other SWANA countries, reducing them to a humbling retreat for Westerners dealing with the stress of living in more civilized countries. Yet, when I returned from Morocco, I felt the same. I didn’t think about work, or school, and I came back with a sketchbook full of inspiration to include in future paintings. I went to all of the popular tourist destinations. I visited the Yves St Laurent Museum in Marrakech.
When I first drove to move into my freshman year dorm, I passed by a massive Mosque; the biggest I had ever seen. It had towering minarets, it was decorated with Islamic arches and tile work, and it sat directly across the park from my dorm room window. The mosque in the city I was from was a small building, with no identifiable Islamic Marking aside from the sign which read “Crescent Community Center”. It only took a couple days to learn the Mosque wasn’t a mosque, but a theater called Altria. It used to be called the Mosque theater, as the owner of the park across the street from me insisted on telling me. I, too, have a Islamic exterior. I look just like my Arab father, and nothing like my Slavic mother. Arabs walk up to me, compliment my dark hair, ask me where I’m from, and introduce themselves in Arabic. I always feel terrible to disappoint them and explain that my father didn’t pass his language to me. I cannot provide the same, safe Islamic, female space I spent so long making art about. And yet, I searched for that same comfort in Altria. But Altria is not a mosque.
La Mezquita, a Catholic church in Cordoba, still is surrounded by the striped arches that were built when it was originally constructed as a Mosque. But the Roman architecture of the Hagia Sophia was simply partially covered by Islamic calligraphy, and it now exists as a mosque. So what is an Arab or Islamic object? If an Orientalist painting is not an Arab painting, what does that make me? Is an appearance enough to signify an identity, or can an exterior betray an interior?