Subverting the ‘Orientalist’ Gaze

During the 19th century a European art movement defined as ‘Orientalism’ began to flourish. The artworks of Western artists depicting richly sensual, colourful and exotic worlds beyond Europe became highly fashionable. Such artistic interpretations included Western depictions of an amalgamated ‘Near East’, a simplified and often demeaning vision of the cultures of North Africa, the Middle East and Turkey. In turn, such portrayals have had lasting impact and influence.


(19thc artworks by Ingres and Delacroix)

Such ideals were embedded by creating a binary between ‘East’ and ‘West’ supported by positive and negative assertions and mythology. Orientalist art incorporated detrimental views of ‘non-Western’ people and societies corresponded to colonialism, acting as visual propaganda for European Imperialism. In turn, framed through the eyes of colonizers, complex cultures were often reduced to exotic and primitive stereotypes. In doing so the West was given validation for their perceived right to conquer and rule, claiming intellectual, social and political superiority.

The depiction of ‘non-Western’ women by Western artists had it’s own particular meaning. Men were the vast majority of producers and consumers of art in European societies and therefore controlled and propagated the image of womanhood and the ideals of femininity. Women from beyond the borders of Europe however, were defined by white men in particular racist and misogynistic depictions.


(20thc artworks by Matisse and Picasso)

The Orientalist motif of the eroticised and exoticised Arab/Muslim woman was shaped around a colonial and patriarchal agenda. Designed to titillate the white male gaze, images  of ‘the harem’ became a particular conduit for European male sexual fantasy. The concept of a man’s right to access such female-only space is one associated with domination and control.

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(Artwork by contemporary Turkish artist Selma Gürbüz)
Images of naked women as passive exotic objects for the white voyeur became a common theme. Associations with lesbianism, debauchery and sexual availability for the white colonizer fulfilled the desires of white men, while leaving the ideal of the pure and virtuous white woman intact. However, ‘harem women’ were often portrayed with very white skin as restricted open sexual desire for white women was projected through Orientalist fantasy.  Erotic and exotic stereotypes of Arab and Muslim women suited an agenda of imperialist control and a reality in which white male sexual domination and abuse could exist.
(Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc: Harem Woman #1, 2008)
To counteract such embedded racist and misogynistic mythology, in recent decades many North African, Middle Eastern and Turkish women artists have set out to subvert the visions of the Orientalists.
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Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s artwork, for example, incorporates and explores many of the exotic motifs employed by the Orientalist painters such as Ingres and Delacroix. While enjoying the aesthetics involved however, the artist as an Arab and Muslim woman is also subverting the fantasy and claiming it as her own. In turn, Essaydi not only confronts white Eurocentric control of the female body, but also the oppressive patriarchal divide created within her own contemporary culture.
Lalla Essaydi, Harem #19b, 2009 (1)
(Lalla Essaydi, Harem #19b, 2009)
Algerian artist, Houria Niati’s painting ‘No to Torture’ questions the exotic stereotype of Algerian women represented within Orientalist art. The artist takes a stance against false narratives from those outside of the culture she herself is part of. This is both in relation to colonizers and patriarchs, to herself as an Algerian and also as a woman.
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(No To Torture (1984) by Algerian artist Houria Niati)

Likewise, Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa aims to deconstruct the Orientalist mythology. The artist reveals aspects of the Western artists work to highlight the racism and misogyny involved, therefore revealing their colonialist and anti-woman agenda.

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(Turkish artist Gülsün Karamustafa, Double Action Series for Oriental Fantasies 1999-2000)
Such re-framing of colonialist male artwork enables the artists to dismantle the hugely damaging and influential fantasies and narratives encoded into such paintings. In turn, women once portrayed as merely exotic toys have claimed back their own representation.
















Women’s Liberation of Art

In a late 1960s/early 1970s Western context incorporating civil rights demonstrations, gay liberation, questioning of class privilege and new discourses on post-colonial theory, challenges to all existing social conventions and hierarchies began pervading society, politics and culture. The movement for the liberation of woman was a major part of such a social uprising. Concerns such as self-determination and representation of sex, class, racial, cultural and sexual identity were also increasingly apparent in art therefore.

This was a cultural era in which art historians and academics began theorising art as moving away from the modernist theories and practices which had previously governed mainstream culture in the twentieth century. It was therefore defined as post-modernism.

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(Elizabeth Catlett, ‘Homage to My Young Black Sisters’ (1968))

In terms of the production of art, many artists were beginning to address a variety of political, social and philosophical issues. Contemporary art was also being characterised as incorporating an assortment of radical new ideas and practices from performance to land art.

Artists themselves were also beginning to typify  those who had previously been marginalised due to sex, sexuality, locale, disability or ethnicity for example. In turn, those who had been physically and ideologically omitted from the systems and institutions of the Western cultural world began to inspire a whole diverse and complex philosophical movement on artistic expression.

As the latter twentieth century continued, many theorists and art historians, informed by anthropological and sociological studies and developments, have analysed the idea of cultural exclusion and oppression. Within this, with growing calls for women’s liberation, came a corresponding questioning of culture in terms of the role of gender and art.

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(Womanhouse (1972), feminist art installation and performance space organized by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro)

‘Woman’s Art’ (1972) by Austrian artist and writer Valie Export, for example, was a manifesto that was produced for the feminist art exhibition ‘MAGNA’ in 1972.  Writing at the time, Export highlighted how historical and contemporary male control of female representation had created a reality shaped by men and informed by masculinity. She stated that ideas of womanhood had been created to suit a culture suppressing women’s own language and production. Export called for female self-awareness that challenged oppressive social expectations and artistic conventions. The writer demanded the right for women to develop an autonomous image of themselves in order to transform society.

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(Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your body is a battleground) (1989))

The art historians Parker and Pollock, in their landmark book Old Mistresses: Women, Art and Ideology (1981), utilised feminist analysis to explore constructions of gender and art history. Such theorists not only identified female exclusion from representation as artistic producers, but also investigated how art is informed by particular ideological concepts involved in the construction of masculinity and femininity. This included exploring representation as indicative of an existing sexual and social hierarchy.

In turn, black feminist theorists such as bell hooks have discussed the particular oppression of black women in terms of gender and race in accordance with representation and access.  The issue of sexist and racist iconography in culture and the negative stereotypes of black females that have ensued, in addition to systematic exclusion on the grounds of sex and race,  have been identified and explored.

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(Adrian Piper, Catalysis III, 1970, from a series of conceptual performances in Manhattan that violated social norms of public behaviour. The artist addressed ostracism, otherness, racial “passing,” and racism)

Feminist theorists  defined the importance of analysis of the creativity of women in comparison to (white) male production of art. Interpretation was considered in conjunction with such concepts as, for example, ‘the male gaze’ and the idea of an ‘oppressed personality’ imposed on women, to reflect the limiting conditions on the production and reading of artworks.

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(Valie EXPORT, The Birth Madonna , 1976)

Defining the issue of marginalisation was certainly integral to this post-modern period. However, despite the rise in women producing challenging work as a result, art must be viewed within the wider context of a culture in which ‘woman’ is continuing to be (largely) “constructed by man” as Valie Export stated.









Women artists of the Canadian Inuits

In sharp contrast to the Western art world where women have been largely sidelined or excluded, in the Canadian Inuit society of Cape Dorset, it is the women who are recognised as the leaders of the contemporary Inuit art movement.


(Pitaloosie Saila, Dorset Woman (1972))

It is women artists who have won the most awards and accolades, who have achieved the highest prices at auction for their artworks and received worldwide recognition.

The Dorset Culture dates back to around 600 BCE, and has a tradition of producing artworks and sculpture depicting a variety of landscapes, activities and animals common to the Inuits, such as bears, birds, seals, caribou and whales. However the work also contains a ritualistic and spiritual significance relating to the shamanic beliefs of the people.

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, Spirit of the Raven, 1979)

In the mid 20th century, printing techniques were introduced to the community, such as stenciling and block printing. As many artists were already familiar with carving techniques and due to the availability of the materials, stone printing was especially accessible. Female artists carved their own stones for the process.



(The print block for Helen Kalvak’s The Power of Amulets (1987))

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(Kenojuak Ashevak, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958))

Artists such as Kenojuak Ashevak began producing works in what a Western reading would describe as semi abstract, naive or naturalistic style. This was to prove popular to European and American tastes in an era of Western modernism. In turn, Ashevak’s first print, Rabbit Eating Seaweed (1958) was well received in a burgeoning global art market. Subsequently the artist went on to become the most well known of all Inuit artists of the 20th century.

Ashevak was born the daughter of a shaman, into a traditional life of nomadic tribal hunting on the southern coast of Baffin Island. It was the role of women to cut and work skins and furs, an intricate and skillful process involving design work, contrasting colours and even pictorial arrangements. These were thought to be comparable and easily transferable skills/talents and processes to producing the patterns and forms involved in  graphics, drawing, painting and printmaking.


(Kenojuak Ashevak, 1963)

Co-operatives were created in which art could be produced in a changing economy for the Inuit people. Women artists often shared any economic gain, investing into the artistic processes in order to maintain community productivity.


(Kenojuak Ashevak, 2013)

Artists such as Mayoreak Ashoona, Pitseolak Ashoona, Pitaloosie Sailaand, Helen Kalvak and many more Inuit women artists have emerged and gained success. Each artist, in turn, clearly has an individual style whether reflecting dreams, goddesses, shamanic shape-shifting, evolving camp life or landscape. Themes relating to the artists as women and their own particular experience such as memories of girlhood, motherhood and family life are however, a common thread between the artists

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  (Helen Kalvak, Adopted Sons (1966))









Personal and Political, Women’s Performance Art

When the body is central to artistic production and representation, the personal and the political meet. Performance art itself has therefore been a medium utilised by those often marginalised.

The practice has modernist avant-garde (Dadaist) origins, and was also employed by groups such as Fluxus and the neo avant-garde ‘happenings’ of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Feminism however, played a significant role in the continuation of the medium into the latter part of the twentieth century. Performance has been especially relevant to female artists who aimed to counter female stereotypes while having artistic agency.

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(Carolee Schneemann, Eye Body #1 1963)

The rise in the use of performance art came at an era of calls for women’s liberation. By utilising the medium artists were able to question the ‘subject-object’ relationship inherent in many male produced artworks. The female performance artist could also subvert assumptions of the perceived artistic masculine mastery of high art, by emphasizing her own production and agency.

One of the forerunners of feminist performance art is Carolee Schneemann. In her ground breaking series Eye Body (1963), the artist presented herself as paint smeared and naked among various objects. The image was not one of passivity but of confrontation in her reclamation and active embodiment of the female nude.

The medium has been utilised to highlight many issues of ‘difference’. As matters such as gender role have been explored within evolving feminist analysis, so in turn, have debates arisen around selfhood and identity in conjunction with ideas of ‘otherness’ surrounding culture, race, disability and locale, for example.

Cuban artist Ana Mendieta’s performance work has explored not only her experience of womanhood but ideas of her identity in terms of place and ethnicity .


(Ana Mendieta, Imagen de Yagul, 1973)

The artist created many outdoor performances in which the focus is on the landscape and goddess-like female body. The use of the medium enabled the work to be read in terms of empowered and iconic female imagery in addition to the transitory nature of life and meaning. The work has been perceived as inspired by Mendieta’s feminist politics, Cuban heritage and exiled status.

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(Lisa Bufano, Home is not home , 2011)

Interdisciplinary artist Lisa Bufano, who legs and fingers were amputated when she was 21 due to illness, also utilised performance. Despite the various props and prosthetics the artist used, the medium enabled an intimate focus on the body as a central theme of her work. This, in turn, raised particular questions on perceptions of the female body in terms of disability, in addition to the artist’s own telling of her personal experience.

Women artists utilised performance as a medium as it enabled and reflected self-ownership of the body and significantly – the female body, which had been represented and controlled for centuries by male artists.


Women artists of the Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance was an early 20th century (1920’s-30’s) literary, artistic, and intellectual movement in Harlem, New York. As African Americans migrated from rural Southern plantation slavery to areas such as the urban Northeast, communities were formed and civil rights sought for. This, in turn, creating the foundations for such black cultural expression to manifest and become globally influential.


(Lois Maillou Jones, In her Paris studio, c.1938)

Within this movement there were many women artists such as  Augusta Savage, Selma Burke, Elizabeth Prophet and Lois Maillou Jones. The blossoming of such creative African American female talent had, in turn, been enabled by previous sister pioneers of the art world such as Edmonia Lewis.

In the 19th century, Lewis was the first African/Native American sculptor to gain international recognition. The artist lived for many years in the European cities of Rome and London, and her pioneering work included African-American and abolitionist themes.


(Edmonia Lewis, Forever Free (1867), the emancipation of African-American slaves after the Civil War)

Like Lewis however, the women of the Harlem Renaissance faced prejudices of both race and sex. They braved not only the ongoing hostile racist environment of exclusion and suppression but also the challenge of gaining independence as women to pursue their artistic goals.

The racial and gendered prejudices of the institutions of the art and outside world challenged the ambitions of artists such as Lois Mailou Jones. While living in North Carolina, for example, the artist was subject to the humiliation of segregation, forcing her to  move north. Despite such indignities, Jones eventually studied art abroad, became a highly influential, internationally exhibited artist and educator during the Harlem Renaissance and later became Professor of design at Howard University in Washington, D.C.


(Lois Mailou Jones, Self-Portrait, 1930’s)

Like Jones, Augusta Savage also became influential in the movement. When struggling with poverty, the Harlem community, including  African-American women’s groups, fund raised to send the artist to Paris to study. Later, in 1934, Savage became the first African-American artist to be elected to the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors.

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(Augusta Savage in the studio, 1939)

In turn, such women artists’ talent and creative persistence in the face of adversity, aided in forging the idea of the “New Negro Woman”, a complex cultural identity for African-American females based on intellect and creativity.

This was an early voice for the civil rights and intellectual role of black women in both the art world and wider society.



Claude Cahun’s Self-portrait (1928)

Claude Cahun’s Self-portrait (1928), was created in an interwar European age incorporating the aftermath of the First World War, revolution, rising fascism and the rapidly shifting effects of capitalism. All impacted on culture.

This was an age in which radical political, social and cultural challenges were sought from art in defiance of the perceived bourgeois mainstream.

Such revolutionary artists included the Surrealists.

The ‘First Manifesto of Surrealism’ (1924) declared a commitment to ‘complete nonconformism’ (Breton, 1924).

It was in this context that French, Jewish, lesbian Cahun, an artist associated with the movement, created her work.


(Claude Cahun, Self-Portrait, Silver gelatin print on paper, 1928)

In terms of contents, Cahun’s work highlights the artist standing by a mirror, within a sparse domestic setting. Her attire of ‘masculine’ checked jacket is notably highlighted. Cahun engages the spectator with her strong, direct and almost confrontational glance. Her mirror image, however, appears to look away raising questions of the role of the gaze in terms of artist and spectator.

Cahun’s use of photography, a medium viewed as a low art form in comparison to ideas surrounding painting in the era, was in itself an avant-garde attack on mainstream artistic values and expectations. The work was also probably collaborative with Cahun’s female life partner Marcel Moore and such female collaboration is in itself a rejection of notions of the individual male artist genius.

Cahun’s work is not thought to have been created for commercial or particular artistic approval and was more widely publically highlighted in a later postmodern context, as part of a feminist recovery of women’s art history.

The artist’s exploration of gender role and lesbianism has been the subject of much postmodernist feminist analysis. It has been viewed, for example, as an important work in terms of a woman artist shaping and controlling her own representation. Cahun’s androgynous imagery is clearly a challenge to traditional ideas of female/heterosexual representation. The artist demonstrates agency by utilising the self-portrait genre in which she has control over her female body as both subject and object.

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(Catherine Opie, Dyke, 1993)

It is also an important work therefore, in that it signifies female self-awareness in presentation which may be compared to much later feminist and lesbian post-modern artworks of the late 20th century and beyond.

Cahun’s employment of bold gaze and stance, jacket and short hair links to ideas within her own eras bohemian explorations of female emancipation and sexuality (e.g. the ‘‘new woman’’). Cahun’s work was created free from the pressure of commercial concerns which enabled the artist to work more courageously in terms of her expression of her womanhood and lesbianism, while challenging conventions on gender role.

Like Frida Kahlo’s work SelfPortrait with Cropped Hair (1940), Cahun’s work subverts traditional ideas of female vanity and the artist’s cropped hair rejects conventional notions of female sexuality.


(Frida Kahlo, SelfPortrait with Cropped Hair, 1940)

Cahun’s photograph may also be compared to the work of fellow Surrealist photographer Man Ray, who explored themes of cross-dressing (e.g.Rrose Sélavy (1921), below). The male photographer, with artist Duchamp, however, construct a  ‘feminine’ identity in which the emphasis is on ‘spectacle’. This aligns itself with conventional oppressive and limited views of ‘woman’ as object in male interpreted representation.


(Man Ray, Portrait of Rrose Selavy (Marcel Duchamp), 1921)

In contrast Cahun presents herself as countering the spectator’s gaze with that of her own. In doing so she is no longer the object of the gaze, but the active subject of an important and challenging work on gender construction and expression of herself as a woman and a lesbian.

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Homebound (2000) by Mona Hatoum.

A comparable contemporary installation to Judy Chicago’s artwork The Dinner Party (1979) (see previous blog post) is Homebound (2000) created by Lebanese-born Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum.


This work also reflects the private domain so often associated with female creativity. The installation comprises of a kitchen setting with domestic metallic furniture (e.g. table, lamp, utensils).


However, all objects are connected by apparently live wires. Hatoum utilises light bulbs which flicker and sounds of electric humming to intensify a disconcerting atmosphere, and so subverting expectations of familiar and safe notions of household space.

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Horizontal wires also restrict access to this arena therefore combining suggestions of home with ideas of imprisonment and torture. While like Chicago, the artist also subverts and questions assumptions about ‘feminine space’, Hatoum’s ideas of home combine familiar associations of nurturing and care with disturbance on both a physical and psychological level.

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This, obviously, offers ideas of domestic life far from the traditional ideal. In turn, the work may be considered with the artist’s own origins in Beirut and relocation to the West. While summoning a gendered interpretation, such as raising the subject of domestic violence, this contemporary work may also raise further more complex interpretations concerning issues of dislocation, ethnicity and conflict.


The Dinner Party (1979) by Judy Chicago

In 1979 American artist Judy Chicago exhibited her ground breaking and iconic (collaborative) installation The Dinner Party (1979). The work is viewed as the first epic feminist artwork.


The Installation comprises of a large triangular shaped tabled with place settings for thirty nine people. Here the viewer is invited as if a guest.

Each setting is inscribed with the name of a historical and/or mythological woman. The work acts as a symbolic history of Western women within culture.


Each plate is adorned with yonic/labial imagery. The installation caused much controversy in the art world not only for its emphasis on women, but also because a female artist had created a work reflecting (shockingly!) positive imagery of female genitalia.


Feminist theorists however highlighted the work for encouraging women artists in utilising their own voice and for the artist’s agency and empowered representation of the female both culturally and sexually.

Chicago’s employment of the domestic setting subverts traditional ideas of the female artist and the private realm. Her use of ceramics and textile art (e.g. embroidery) within the piece celebrates traditional female creativity . The work implies a challenge to ideas that  women’s work defined as ‘craft’ is less culturally valuable and opposes ideas of the masculine genius defined within notions of modernist ‘fine art’.


The work not only highlights ideas of female production within culture but itself raises such issues as the interpretation of art by challenging how male-dominated language on perceptions of gender and identity have been constructed within art.