(Amrita Sher-Gil (Indian painter) 1913 – 1941 Tribal Women, 1938)
‘Othering’ is the process of viewing or treating a person or group of people as intrinsically different from and alien to yourself. It may be ascribed to the historical treatment of Western women artists (as discussed in the previous blog post) by the male-run art establishment. However, it also applies to the way in which the reading of art has been skewed to suit a particular Western narrative.
Western art history is viewed in terms of the development of European ‘high art’. This progression is considered to have Greco/Roman classical foundations, a Renaissance ‘rebirth’, progressing to the modern era. Particular ideas are associated with Western art, such as that of the individual artist genius. Great artists were not only perceived as male, but also as white and European.
Unsurprisingly such ideals were formulated and established by white European men.
When contemplating the work of women artists globally, it is therefore imperative to contemplate the impact of such dominating and oppressive cultural ideals.
(South African artist Nandipha Mntambo, Europa, 2008)
Western art historians, when considering art created beyond Europe, perpetuated the values of Western culture as the template for all cultural and artistic standards. In turn, ideas of Western and ‘non-Western’ art were created with the assumption of superiority and therefore inferiority.
Such polarity was embedded by the use of certain negative assumptions and stereotypes ranging from ‘exotic’ to ‘primitive’.
(In her short film The Two Planets (Dow Song Duang) 2012, the farmers of small Thai villages discuss several classic works of modern European painting while Thai artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook fixes her camera on them).
Imperialist and Eurocentric ideas have been highly influential in the reading of art from many diverse cultural origins. When considering European analysis of Chinese art, for example, the wealth of Chinese written theory and a complex artistic tradition spanning two thousand years (pre-dating European definitions of ‘high art’) threatened the very concept of Western superiority.
Chinese art was therefore viewed from the perception of an advanced history of Western art history. Fundamental and complex concepts such as the significance of brush method as other culturally valuable expressions were often devalued, dismissed or misinterpreted.
(Artwork by Guan Daosheng (1263-1316), Chinese poet and painter who was active during the early Yuan Dynasty)
Western scholars often ignored or failed to recognise the variety of changing styles, subjects and evolution of ideas within Chinese art as part of a culturally rich and complex culture with its own canons and hierarchies. To emphasise the idea of the East/West binary opposition, Chinese art was largely labelled as ‘traditional’ and therefore not evolving in comparison to ‘progressive’ Western art.
(Contemporary artist Jessica So Ren Tang explores Chinese-American cultural identity through textiles and embroidery)
Likewise colonial discourses from the West often considered the historically rich and culturally/religiously diverse India and the many countries and cultures of Africa, for example, as primarily ‘primitive’ and ‘savage’. Assumptions of a more enlightened, modern Western culture were part of the justification for colonialist rule therefore.
Ideas of acceptable forms of artworks to the West from specific cultures were also formed on the basis of concepts like ‘purity’. This meant that ‘non- Western’ art must suit the narrow and often racist assumptions of Western theorists. Artworks read through such Western eyes were therefore often misunderstood in terms of their cultural context, spiritual or social significance and their symbolism and function.
Within the enforcement of Imperialist ideologies, women, and therefore women artists, suffered not only under the influence of such colonialist ideals, but also in terms of being female. The combination of racism and sexism created a particularly hostile climate for women often already subject to their own patriarchal cultures. Women viewed as existing beyond the perceived ‘respectable’ boundaries of European norms of ‘femininity’ were classified as exotic toys for the Western male gaze or labelled as animalistic and therefore sub-human subordinates. This, in turn, justified the many specific and normalised abuses perpetuated on women, such as sexual violence. The 19th century French male painter Delacroix, for example, promoted titillating myths of the harem in his work, thus creating an eroticizied idea of a ‘wild non-Western’ (and therefore untamed) womanhood to gratify the pornographic fantasies of rich white Western males.
(In her 1982 work, No To Torture (below), Algerian artist Houria Niati questions the exotic stereotype perpetuated by 19th century French painter Delacroix)
The othering of people, of women, of cultures, and the creation of such ideals incorporating the dominating influence of European Imperialism and Christian evangelism sadly remain to some extent, producing a long shadow over the reading of artworks from many diverse and complex origins. However, ongoing challenges from post-colonial and black feminist discourses continue to highlight and counter both the racist and sexist narratives and assumptions which still pervade much of Western culture.