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.
(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.
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)
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.
(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.
(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.