Kara Walker @ Tate Modern

Kara Walker

Kara Walker was born in California in 1969. She is an American contemporary painter, silhouettist, print-maker, installation artist, and film-maker. I have previously come across her work in:

1. The big exhibition of prints held at the British Museum in 2017, where I wrote:

In this room the standout artist for me was Kara Walker, with her stylised black-and-white silhouettes of figures from the ante-bellum Deep South. I’ve seen an exhibition of these before, so there’s an element of recognition and familiarity in my positive response. Coming towards the end of a rather exhausting exhibition featuring over 200 images, the clarity, purity of line and savage humour of her work sets her apart.

But her style is also capable of a strange dreamlike quality, fantasias of colour, exploitation, journeying across the seas, converting history into eerie illustrations for a very grown-up set of fairy tales.

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

no world from An Unpeopled Land in Uncharted Waters (2010) Aquatint by Kara Walker © Kara Walker. Reproduced by permission of the artist

2. The other place I’d come across Walker is in the huge book, Women, Art and Society by Whitney Chadwick (2012) where Chadwick writes:

  • Works like [Kara Walker’s] installation Narratives of a Negress (2003) raise complex issues about history, memory, and ethnic, gender and cultural identity. (p.492)

So I was familiar with Walker’s crisp, black silhouettes, and the way that, despite their often emotive titles the actual illustrations are often more teasing, strange and fantastical than the apparent straightforward obsession with slavery would suggest.

Slavery! Slavery! by Kara Walker (1997) Installation at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles

Kara Walker and the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument

So when Tate announced that this year’s annual commission would be given to Walker, anyone familiar with her work will have expected it to touch on the issue of slavery – and she didn’t disappoint. She has created a huge sculpture which parodies the Queen Victoria Memorial Monument outside Buckingham Palace.

To understand how Walker has parodied the original, let’s take a moment to refresh our memories.

The Queen Victoria Memorial, outside Buckingham Palace, London

The Victoria monument is 25 metres high and contains 2,300 tonnes of white Carrara marble. As well as a solid, matronly Queen Victoria seated holding the orb and sceptre, the memorial also carries statues representing courage, constancy, victory, charity, truth and motherhood. The central monument, created between 1906 and 1924, is by Sir Thomas Brock, but the whole design, including the nearby Memorial Gardens, was conceived by Sir Aston Webb and the Memorial was formally unveiled by King George V in 1911.

Kara Walker’s Fons Americanus

Walker decided that, in London, home of the slave trade for so many centuries, and a city stuffed to the gills with very white marble statues of and monuments to very white imperial heroes, it would be an interesting gesture to create a memorial, on a similarly imposing scale, to all the victims of the transatlantic slave trade.

The result is Fons Americanus (Latin for American fountain), an enormous monument made up of various human statues and a water feature spouting water into a set of concentric pools at its base, also filled with miscellaneous statues of people and a surprising number of sharks.

Installation view of Fons Americanus by Kara Walker (2019)

Walker replaces the smooth Victorian allegorical figures of the original with crudely carved cartoon figures representing archetypes from the slave trade, topped off with a staggering female figure spouting water from her breasts (and also from a nasty gash in her neck).

Each of these figures has a symbolic meaning and, although it’s not immediately obvious, most of them actually reference works of art from the British tradition, nineteenth century paintings of rafts and slaves and so on. There’s a full list of the different figures and explanations on the Tate website:

Broadly speaking, Walker replaces the British or imperial icons, depicted in the smooth neo-classical style of the original monument, with figures from various aspects of the slave trade – a weeping boy, a native woman instead of smug Queen Vic, a generic sea captain, a kneeling praying man in chains, and a tree with a noose dangling from it to represent the countless Africans who were hunted down, tortured, lynched and hanged.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood


First thoughts

1. Scale

The most obvious thing about filing the Turbine Hall is that your work must be big, and Fons Americanus is big alright. You can view it from the ground floor walkway but it’s worth going down to the lower level to walk around it and really get a sense of its hugeness. It towers over the mere mortals at its feet.

2. Aesthetics

All the Tate labels and webpages emphasise that the point of Fons Americanus is to subvert and parody the smooth surfaces of traditional monuments, as those monuments in their turn smooth over and gloss over the violence, and horror and exploitation which lay at the basis of the British Empire.

And that this explains why the surfaces of all the figures have been left deliberately pockmarked and rough to the touch. And, in the same spirit, explains why the human figures aren’t perfectly proportioned human figures based on the ancient Greek ideals of standardised beauty; instead they are deliberately rough and crude, because life is crude and real people are rough.

I understand the intention. I understand all that. But it’s still ugly. It’s still hard not to be repelled by the crudeness and ugliness of the figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Maybe she’s intending to give repellent content a repellent appearance, I understand the intention. But it’s notable how drastically Fons Americanus with its lunking crudity is unlike the silhouettes which brought her to fame. The silhouettes were notable for their style and grace and elegance of design.

I can’t help thinking that anyone familiar with the imaginative world of her silhouette works will be surprised and pretty disappointed by the blunt crudity of this enormous object.

3. Irony

There is a sort of politico-aesthetic irony here: I have read here and about other exhibitions, that Walker and many other BAME artists and writers are protesting against the white canons and the white rules of beauty which have dominated European and American art and media for so long. My impression is that for the past fifty years or more a lot of black artists and writers and film-makers have been campaigning to have black beauty, black pride, black appearance, black hair and black faces incorporated into much more diverse and inclusive notions of ‘beauty’.

OK, I understand the aim.

But there’s a kind of irony here that Walker seems to be playing to the crudest of racist stereotypes and clichés by making her black people so insistently and defiantly brutish and ugly, unfinished, rough and repellent. Maybe we are intended to overcome our repulsion from these crudely drawn figures and make the imaginative effort to sympathise for any human in dire need, no matter how crude and ungainly and clumpishly they’re depicted? Maybe the aesthetic clumsiness is part of a kind of moral test?

4. Patronising

But the biggest problem with this installation is the wall labels, the press release and all the relevant pages on the Tate website.

They all seem to assume that we’ve never heard of the Atlantic slave trade – that the existence of slavery 200 years ago will come as a massive surprise to Tate gallery visitors – and that the work will shine a dazzling new light on a previously unknown subject, confronting ‘a history often misremembered in Britain’ as the wall label puts it.

Misremembered by whom exactly? By art gallery visitors? Probably the most bien-pensant, liberal cohort of people you could assemble anywhere.

The notion that the slave trade is an obscure historical event which needs more publicising struck me as an extraordinary claim, especially since I went to see this sculpture during the 32nd Black History Month.

Had none of the previous 31 Black History Months mentioned slavery? Have no books been written on the subject, or TV documentaries made, or articles written or exhibitions about it held anywhere else? That assumption, which is taken as the premise of all the curator commentary, seemed astonishingly patronising, to me.

In fact I gave up reading the Tate web-page about the installation when I came to the sentence carefully explaining that London was ‘the capital of the British Empire’… OK. It was at that point that I realised the entire commentary was either for schoolchildren, or for people who have little or no knowledge about Britain or British history. But are these the kinds of people you are liable to meet at Tate Modern or Tate Britain?

In fact the type of person you meet most at Tate Modern are tourists. Every time I go, I end up helping some hapless foreigners find their way about, or explain the escalators and lifts, or the layout of two buildings to them (yesterday I had to explain to a family of Italians in the lift with me that they were going to the correct floor but in the wrong building).

Almost all the voices I heard as I walked round the installation were foreign: I particularly remember a French family who were posing their little kids for charming tourist pics on the edge of Fons Americanus‘s the pool, and plenty of other family groups were posing and taking family snaps around it, just as they do by the fountains in Trafalgar Square or at any number of other great big imposing public monuments in London.

What does its radical deconstruction of the tradition of neo-classical, British imperial monumentalising mean to them, I wonder?

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Ben Fisher

5. Artists and history

History, as a professional activity, is about the careful sifting of evidence. Historians undergo an extensive training in the use of archives and other sources, and ways of judging and assessing documents, speeches, books and so on.

Historians can obviously still be terribly biased, or commissioned by the state to write propaganda, and completely ‘objective’ history is probably impossible – but nonetheless the notion of objective history is still an ideal worth preserving and striving for, and most historians generally adhere to professional standards of presenting and interpreting evidence, which is or should be made available for others to sift and assess in their turn.

And hence the intellectual discipline of History – which amounts to an endless debate about all aspects of the past backed up by evidence.

Compare and contrast this meticulous approach with the worldview of artists, who are free to make great sweeping generalisations about life and art and society and capitalism and God and anything else they feel like, with little or no comeback, with no requirement for proof or evidence.

This is fine if they want to make provocative works out of industrial junk or surrealist paintings. But if they take it upon themselves to create works designed to be a complete reinterpretation of history over a period of hundreds of years – and if their new interpretation of history is going to be taught to schoolchildren and explained to school groups – then they assume a certain amount of responsibility.

In other words, to put it really bluntly – you shouldn’t rely on artists to teach you anything about history. You should rely on historians. That’s why they’re called historians. It is because they are lifelong specialists in an area of intellectual enquiry which is defined by rules, best practice, and policed by a community of peers, in academic journals and so on.

That’s Argument Number One against artists teaching history.

Argument Two concerns the idea of respecting the complexity of human history.

In my opinion, good history should try above all to capture the complexity of human motives and experiences. It’s a mistake not to take account of the extent to which people of the past were just as multi-faceted, complicated and capable of contradictory feelings, beliefs and actions, as we are today. They were people like us, not one-dimensional caricatures.

In order to create the space to let your imagination and empathy work, in order to fully enter into the spirit of another time and try to understand the people who lived in it and the multiple pressures and compulsions they lived under – we should not rush to judgement. As the American historian David Silbey writes in his incisive account of the 1900 Boxer Rebellion against Western imperialist forces in China:

Passing judgement is a dangerous role for a historian to play. (p.202)

The kind of history I like is continually upsetting my expectations, presenting me with counter-intuitive ideas, making me stop and think and really reconsider my existing beliefs. Thus the book about Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, which I read recently, overturned my ideas about all sorts of aspects of the past, made me view lots of general trends and specific areas of history (such, for example, as the importance of the imperial conquests of Russia) in a completely new light.

My view is that Walker’s version of history doesn’t tell you anything you didn’t already know – that you weren’t taught at school and haven’t had reinforced by countless books, documentaries, newspaper and magazine articles and Hollywood movies about slavery – and by thirty-two Black History Months with their annual outpouring of exhibitions, articles and documentaries.

Instead of making you really stop and think, of prompting unexpected insights and new ways of seeing, for me, at any rate, Fons Americanus seems to set out to confirm all your prejudices and stereotypes –

  • to confirm your impression that all blacks in all of history were helpless victims of the slave trade
  • to confirm the stereotype that all white masters were racist sadists
  • to erase the fact that the slaves were sold to the traders by Africans who made a fortune by enslaving their fellow blacks
  • to erase the hundreds of thousands who worked or bought their way out of slavery, set up businesses or had lives as fulfilling as plenty of the miserably poor whites (and other ethnic groups) they lived among
  • to erase the role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing slavery and then policing the world’s oceans to try and prevent it. As James Walvin points out in his history of slavery, ‘Between 1820 and 1870 the Royal Navy seized 1,600 slave ships on the Atlantic and freed 150,000 slaves, especially heading to Cuba and Brazil.’ Somehow, I don’t think we’re going much about these positive achievements in the deluge of wokeness coming our way.

In other words, I feel nervous about the reduction of an immense and extraordinarily complicated history of the multifarious experiences of tens of millions of people over several hundred years down to half a dozen, crudely-drawn, Simpsonsesque cartoon figures.

Installation view of Fons Americanus. Photo by Matt Greenwood

Fons Americanus is big. It’s very big. American big. Like a skyscraper or a Big Mac.

But I recoiled from it a) aesthetically – it is crude and ugly and repellent, and b) intellectually – it is crude and patronising and dangerously simplistic.

Second Thoughts

To be honest, a lot of my negative response was triggered by Tate’s wall labels and by the Tate web-pages about Fons Americanus and the slave trade – commentary and labels which I found worryingly simple-minded, and single-minded: simplifying an enormous, complex, multifarious epoch of history down into a handful of slogans and images, and into a new, and worryingly simple-minded, orthodoxy.

My argument was, to a large extent, with the written interpretation of the work.

But there’s a different and much more obvious approach to the commission and presence of Fons Americanus here in Tate Modern, which is to ask: among all the hundreds of memorials and monuments and statues to countless white men and generals and politicians, most of whom served under the British Empire in one shape or another and which litter London’s public spaces: should there be a memorial to commemorate the transatlantic slave trade?

To which the answer is almost certainly an emphatic YES, Yes, there should be.

In which case the follow-up questions are:

  1. Should it be this one?
  2. and, Where should it go?

Where would you put it?


The Hyundai Commission at Tate Modern and global warming

Every year Tate commissions a contemporary artist to fill the vast space of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. The funding comes from Hyundai.

Hyundai is a South Korean multinational automotive manufacturer headquartered in Seoul. It manufactures nearly 5 million automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles each year. If green activists have woken up to the fact that many art exhibitions are sponsored by oil companies, and violently object to their contribution to global warming, indeed have gone to the trouble of pouring oil at the front of the National Portrait Gallery which each year hosts the BP Portrait Awards… how long before the penny drops that oil is only actually a pollutant when it is burned to produce CO2 and a host of toxic poisonous chemicals hazardous to human life and all other life forms?

In other words, I wonder for how much longer a company which manufactures toxic, air-polluting ‘automobiles, luxury cars and commercial vehicles’ will be allowed to sponsor works of art and installations like this?


Related links

Other posts about slavery / American history

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art @ the British Museum

European explorers

As John Darwin’s brilliant history of Eurasian empires, After Tamerlane, makes clear, quite a few things distinguished European culture from the culture of the other Eurasian empires (i.e. the Ottoman Empire, the Safavid Empire in Persia, the Moghul Empire in northern India, the Chinese Empire and the Japanese Empire) in the centuries after the death of Tamerlane the Great in 1405.

Just two of them were a readiness, on the part of the Europeans, to travel and explore, and an endless curiosity which led to almost obsessive collecting and categorising and curating and exhibiting.

No Chinese explorers visited Europe during the 19th century and were so dazzled by its history and architecture and art that they made copious sketches and drawings, took photographs, bought up every quaint European curio they could get their hands on, and carried them all back to China to catalogue and categorise and trigger an artistic renaissance.

That kind of thing just didn’t happen because few Chinese travelled abroad. Very few wanted to, or had the means to, and anyway it was frowned upon because every educated Chinese knew that the Celestial Empire was the centre of the universe, the possessor of a perfect culture, which didn’t need or want to know anything at all about the outside world, overrun as it was by cultureless barbarians.

And Darwin shows how this complacent and self-centred attitude was echoed by the cultural and political elites of Japan, Moghul India, the Safavid Empire and the sprawling Ottoman Empire, for centuries.

No, the wandering, exploring, collecting bug seems to have affected Europeans on a completely different scale from any of the world’s other civilisations.

Thus it was that from the 1500s onwards a steadily increasing stream of travellers, explorers, soldiers and sailors, archaeologists and artists travelled all over the Muslim lands lining the North African coast and the Middle East – territory nominally under the control of the extensive Ottoman Empire – to explore and describe and paint and buy and plunder.

Inspired by the East

This ambitious exhibition delves into one aspect of this huge European enterprise by looking at the long and complex history of cultural interchanges between the Islamic Middle East and Europe from about 1500 onwards.

Not surprisingly several of the earliest objects are swords and helmets since the single most important fact about Islam is that it was a conqueror’s religion, spread by highly organised and zealous Arabs as they exploded out of Arabia in the 7th and 8th centuries to seize the Christian Middle East and North African coastline.

Gilt-Copper helmet, Turkey (about 1650) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman dynasty which began its rise to prominence in the 1200s was itself just the last in a line of dynasties which had vied for leadership of the Muslim world since the birth of Islam in the 630s.

The Ottoman Turks rose to dominate the area we call the Middle East during the period 1300 to 1453 (the year when the Ottomans seized Christian Constantinople and made it into their capital, Istanbul). I’ve reviewed several books about the decline of the Byzantine Empire as it came under relentless pressure from successive Muslim rulers, until its eventual fall to the Ottomans.

The Ottoman heyday is usually dated from the year of the fall of Byzantium – 1453 – to around 1600, during which they extended their power across all of North Africa and deep into Europe. It’s salutary to remember that twice the Ottoman army besieged Vienna, in 1526 and 1683, and was only just defeated both times i.e. they could have penetrated even further into Christian Europe.

As it was, throughout this period the Ottomans ruled the extensive territory of former Christian Europe which we call the Balkans, as well as Christian Greece and Christian subjects in numerous Mediterranean islands.

Mainly Victorian

A handful of pieces and a few wall labels in the exhibition gesture towards this long and complex early history of Ottoman rise and conquest and domination, including the striking portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a painter from the school of Veronese, which has been used as the poster for the show.

A Portrait of Sultan Bayezid I by a member of the School of Veronese (c. 1580) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

But the exhibition really focuses on works from the much later period of the 19th and early 20th centuries, partly for the simple reason that the period 1800 to the outbreak of the Second World War saw a steadily increasing number of European travellers to North Africa and the Middle East.

Some of this was simply a function of continually improving transport, sailing ships giving way to steamships, the steady spread of railways, the industrial revolution creating a new leisured class, especially in Britain and France, who wanted to see the world, helped along by firms like Thomas Cook which launched its first cruises in the 1870s.

Many devout Victorians, such as the Pre-Raphaelite artist William Holman Hunt, wanted to tour the Holy Land and see for themselves the places where Our Lord had stood. Flocks of visitors drew and sketched and painted watercolours and oils and bought all manner of souvenirs, carpets and clothes, tiles and glasswork. By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851 the British public was highly aware of the extremely diverse and colourful cultures of the peoples it ruled over.

But the thesis of this exhibition is that the Islamic culture of the Ottoman Empire bore a uniquely close and fractious relationship with Europe, was the predominant colonial and foreign cultural ‘Other’ for Europe throughout the period – a kind of backward cousin, a slothful and declining ‘Orient’ against which we could measure our ever-growing knowledge, technology and power. And that a huge number of craftsmen and artists and metalworkers and glassblowers and designers and artists and architects were particularly dazzled and influenced and inspired by Islamic and Middle Eastern art and culture.

So this exhibition, Inspired by the East, aims to bring together a wealth of artifacts to show a) some of the original Islamic arts and crafts from the era and b) the impact Islamic architecture, designs and patterns had on European craftsmen, artists and designers through a large selection of European objects.

Enamelled glass lamp made by Philippe-Joseph Brocard, France (about 1877)

Thus the exhibition includes wonderful, ornate and beautiful examples from a whole range of media and crafts such as:

  • tiles
  • glasswork
  • ceramics
  • metalwork
  • jewellery
  • clothing
  • architecture
  • design

I was interested to learn there was a genre called ‘costume books’ which simply showed the costumes of all the new races and peoples Europeans had discovered as they expanded and explored from the 1500s onwards and which, of course, featured books devoted to the clothes and garments of the Middle East.

I learned that all kinds of products by Islamic artisans were prized in the West from early on, such as Egyptian metalwork and Persian ceramics. During the 19th century Western craftsmen could use developing technology to reproduce much of this work. The exhibition includes Arab-inspired ceramics by Théodore Deck, a leading French ceramicist who in the late nineteenth century created a range of pieces directly inspired by Islamic originals.

Nearby is a section devoted to Owen Jones, one of the most influential tastemakers of the Victorian era. His pioneering studies on colour theory, geometry and form still inspire designers to this day. Jones was an architect, designer and design theorist and was Superintendent of Works for the 1851 Great Exhibition. His masterpiece was Grammar of Ornament, a huge and lavish folio displaying stunning patterns, motifs and ornaments in 112 illustrated plates, many of which featured Islamic decorations and motifs. Some of the Islamic plates from the book are on display here.

But but but… I was struck by several obvious problems.

Number one was that most of the works on display are by Europeans. They are not original works by the Islamic craftsmen and artists who are so praised. They are European copies, displayed with the intention of showing how widespread the impact of Islamic styles and motifs was on the European arts. If you’re looking for a world of authentically Islamic arts and crafts you’d do better to go the V&A.

Number two was that, despite the beauty of individual works, it became difficult to avoid a sense of scrappiness, a sense that the curators are trying to cover a lot of ground, in fact an enormous subject – the impact of the Muslim world on the art and culture of the West – with a surprisingly small range of exhibits.

Take my home area, history: A few helmets and a sword are accompanied by a paragraph or two about the extent of the Ottoman Empire – but this, the military rise and dominance of the Ottoman Empire, is a huge, a vast subject, which I felt was barely scratched and whose omission made the entire show feel one-sided i.e. presented only the Europeans as aggressive colonialists whereas, as I’ve explained, it was the Muslims who originally conquered half the Christian Mediterranean.

Similarly, the friend I went with is mad about Islamic tiles so was pleased to see a display of half a dozen beautiful and ornate tiles – but disappointed that they turned out to be made by a Victorian British manufacturer using Islamic motifs – and that that was it when it came to tiles.

Islamic architecture is distinctive and beautiful and exists over half the world, but it was dealt with via just a few British buildings which used Islamic motifs, such as the well-known artist Lord Leighton’s famous house in West London which he had modelled inside to recreate some of the rooms from the Alhambra in Spain, namely ‘the Arab Hall’. Leighton had the place covered in Islamic tiles designed by William de Morgan. There are photos of the interior and a lovely wooden model but… is that it?

The single most dominant impression was made by the paintings, a few scattered in the early sections but then leading up to a huge wall displaying about 20 classic, late-Victorian, Orientalist paintings.

In the Madrasa by Ludwig Deutsch (1890) © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Orientalism

This brings us to the several meanings of ‘Orientalism’, a word and idea which are raised early in the exhibition and then referenced throughout.

1. The word Orientalism was originally, during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, a value-neutral term applied to all or any scholars, linguists, archaeologists or artists who specialised in ‘the Orient’, a vague expression generally taken to be Islamic North Africa and Middle East but sometimes stretching to include India. It survives in this neutral sense in many places to this day, for example in the name of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

2. However, the term underwent a revolutionary change in 1978 when the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said published his academic study Orientalism. In this book Said subjected the so-called ‘scholarly’ works of 19th century Orientalist academics to in-depth analysis in order to support one big radical idea: that almost all the supposedly scholarly and academic books and ideas produced by European scholars about the Orient were the witting or unwitting handmaids of Western Imperialism.

Almost all the nineteenth-century Orientalists declared the Ottoman Empire corrupt and stagnant, Islam itself incapable of change. The people living there were stereotyped as somehow more primitive, dressing in loose but colourful clothing, slothful and lazy and corrupt.

Probably the most notable idea was the fascination the institution of the harem had for repressed Westerners who projected all kinds of sexual fantasies onto Oriental woman and painted no end of soft porn depictions of the sultan and his slaves and concubines and slave auctions and so on.

So powerful was Said’s critique that it spread and prospered in the academy, becoming the new orthodoxy and casting a critical shadow back over everything written or painted about the Middle East in the previous 200 years or more. Since its publication almost everything any European said, wrote or painted about the Ottoman Empire has been reappraised to appear in a much more sinister light, either furthering malicious racist stereotypes, aiding in imperial exploitation, or the shameless appropriation of a weaker culture’s art and designs.

Schizophrenia

Now the woke young curators of this exhibition are fully paid-up subscribers to Said’s unforgiving views about Western exploitation of the Middle East. This isn’t a guess on my part. They quote page one of Orientalism in the very opening wall label which introduces the exhibition:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, its cultural contestant… The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture.

And every other wall label takes pains to remind us that the plate or vase or tile or translation of The 1001 Nights or any other cultural product which we’re looking at and which references Islam may well seem beautiful to us but, tut tut, we should be aware that it was part of the wicked European fashion to appropriate Islamic patterns for vases or the exploitative trend for mock Moorish architecture, or the thieving use of Arabic script in picture frames and so on.

And that behind all of this detail, all of these individual examples of cultural appropriation, lies the huge looming shadow of Western Imperialism!

Four tiles by William De Morgan & Co, Britain (1888-1897)

Cumulatively, these hectoring labels and panels created, for me at any rate, a strange sense of schizophrenia. In one and the same wall label the curators might both praise the craftmanship of a western tile maker or architect – and yet accuse them of being part of the general movement of cultural appropriation. Praise and damn almost in the same breath.

As so often in modern exhibitions, I began to feel that I got more visual and aesthetic enjoyment if I just stopped reading the hectoring labels – felt less harangued and nagged to feel guilty about things which happened 150 years before I was even born.

Orientalist painting

It’s probably in painting that the Orientalist issue is most obvious, or most familiar to most of us because the antique shops of the West are awash with third-rate late-Victorian depictions of the Arab world, of mosques, old men in long gowns with even longer beards, camels crossing the desert, Oriental markets, scantily dressed concubines and so on.

Said’s idea is that, although these images are fairly harmless looked at individually, taken together they become condescending, sexist and racist, depicting a fantasy world of harems and sultans, long-gowned scholars in picturesque mosques, colourful markets or the desert at dawn – all of which, taken together, creates a patronising distortion of the complex realities of the many peoples and tribes and ethnic groups and nations scattered across North Africa and the Middle East.

Moreover, taken together, they all tend in the same direction, promoting an ideology claiming that all these cultures and peoples might well be noble and beautiful, but were also backward and in decline, and therefore needed to be taken in hand, taken over, guided and ruled by us, the enlightened West.

At Prayer by Ludwig Deutsch (1923)

The big wall hanging of twenty or so massive Orientalist paintings which I mentioned earlier are obviously meant to represent a kind of ‘Wall of Shame’. Tut tut, we are encouraged to think: look at all these stereotypical markets and mosques and rugs and carpets. Look how oppressive they are.

However, I just didn’t feel the moral outrage I think the curators intend us to feel. The real impact of hanging so many Orientalist paintings next to each other was, in my opinion, to make you feel a bit sick, as if you’d been let loose in a sweetshop and eaten everything in sight. They are self-consciously opulent and gorgeous to the point of absurdity.

Another, more objective result of examining so many of these over-ripe productions was that, pace Said, most of them are not from the imperial nineteenth century, nor, surprisingly, were many of them produced by the classic imperialist powers who carved up the Middle East between them, France and Britain.

At least half of them were from the twentieth century, many from after the Great War (the two above are from 1913 and 1923). And quite a few were by either German or American painters, not by the cultural Anglo-French cultural appropriators. Neither the Germans nor the Americans had any colonial presence in the Middle East till well after the Great War and even then, not very much.

Orientalism or Romanticism?

As I read yet another wall label pointing out how the Orientalist painters fantasised and romanticised and embellished lots of the subjects they painted, as if this was a shockingly immoral and exploitative thing to do, a simple thought occurred to me: Didn’t all 19th century artists?

There are thousands and thousands of Victorian genre paintings which romanticise and glamorise all kinds of subjects, from their own working classes (cf the exhibition of cheesy paintings of Victorian children I saw earlier this year at the Guildhall) to windswept Hebridean crofters.

In other words, wasn’t the entire artistic movement of Romanticism about, well, stereotypically romantic subject matter – about mountains and storms at sea and heroic adventures and tormented heroes and shy maidens with heaving bosoms who needed rescuing from dragons (I’m thinking of the amazing late-Victorian fantasies of Edward Burne-Jones as recently displayed at Tate Britain).

The same exaggerated depiction of popular conceptions of subjects was applied to everything – I bet medieval knights weren’t as manly and knightly as they appear in Victorian paintings, that Highland crofters weren’t as proud and noble, or our brave soldiers quite as manly and beautifully kitted out, as they appear in those big hearty late-Victorian paintings.

Don’t all Victorian paintings depict extravagant stereotypes in lush and glamorous colours? In other words, there is nothing particular or exceptional about this hyper-romantic style being applied to ‘Oriental’ subjects: it was applied to countless other subjects as well.

The Guard by Antonio María Fabrés y Costa (1889)

The harem

I was especially looking forward to the section about the harem, not because I was expecting to be particularly titillated but because I was anticipating the orgy of outraged feminism it would prompt in the commentary.

After all, one of the most obvious and much-repeated claims of anti-orientalist, politically correct literary critics, feminists and curators is that Western white men used the Ottoman institution of the harem to concoct a vast number of soft porn, erotic fantasies which bore no relation to reality at all, but merely satisfied the gloating gaze of fat, rich, white, male collectors.

So the most astonishing single thing about this exhibition about Western depictions of the Orient is the complete absence of even one decent painting showing a classic, late-Victorian harem scene. Not one.

I thought I must have missed a room somewhere and went back through the exhibition to check, but eventually realised that the little collection of five or so chaste drawings and one painting – none of which show a nude woman, all of them very restrained – is all they have! 

There’s a tiny photo of one of the classic nude-in-a-Turkish-bath paintings by Ingres, but any actual huge, beautiful and sexy harem scenes by him or Eugène Delacroix or John Frederick Lewis or any number of their followers and copyers… nothing! None!

I think I could go to my nearest antiques shop and find more cheesy old Victorian paintings of scantily-clad maidens in a supposed harem than there were in this exhibition. It is an astonishing gap. The big oil painting I mentioned is of a fully-clothed woman who could be more or less anywhere.

Off to one side there is one little drawing of a woman playing a musical instrument by a French artist we are assured, by the conscientious curators, was a notorious Orientalist – though it could hardly be less offensive. Does this image strike you as being offensively racist and sexist, stereotyping the Orient and providing visual underpinning for Western imperialism? It doesn’t, to me.

Study of a girl playing a stringed instrument by Jean Léon Gérôme (1886)

In fact it raises a related politico-aesthetic question, because the curators point out that the artists, Jean Léon Gérôme, was well known for his meticulous sketches and drawings he made preparatory to making an oil painting. Which made me reflect: I n what way can these artists be accused of peddling lazy stereotypes if they were carefully and meticulously depicting what they saw, what was actually in front of them?

The sex object bites back (or photographs itself wearing clothes)

The absolute of real killer harem scenes is all the more puzzling because it is meant to set up the final part of the exhibition, which is devoted to contemporary works by modern Muslim women artists.

The curators have chosen to interpret these contemporary Muslim women artists as responding to the despicable tradition of Western Orientalism. They are ‘speaking back to Orientalist representations of the east’. They are ‘subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists’.

But alas the curators’ plan doesn’t really work because we have not seen any of the sexy, sexist Orientalist representations of the east which these contemporary artists are kicking back against. We pretty much have to imagine them, or remember them from other exhibitions or books.

In fact I thought all four of the women artists on display here were very good, very very good, in their way better than the rest of the exhibition. Best of the four was a triptych of images by Lalla Essaydi, part of a large series of works titled Women of Morocco.

In them Essaydi or her models adopt the poses of the scantily-clad women draped around in famous Orientalist paintings, only here the women are chastely and Islamically dressed and – and this is the distinctive thing from a visual point of view – both they, their clothes and the studio backcloths are covered in Islamic script. I thought it was a brilliant idea, brilliantly executed, to produce really vibrant and exciting images.

Les Femmes du Maroc by Lalla Essaydi (2005) © Lalla Esaydi

Conclusion

Inspired by the East feels, in the end, like a rather thin exhibition.

Firstly, it claims to be a look at the interaction between East and West, so you’d expect it to be divided into two parts; How East affected West and how West affected East.

As noted, there’s plenty of examples of the way Westerners appropriated Eastern designs and motifs and patterns, architecture and design (although this felt like a much larger subject which really deserved to be investigated in much greater depth – All over London are buildings which incorporate Islamic motifs; if you add in tiling and ceramics and metalwork you have a huge subject).

But as to West affecting East, this section felt very skimpy indeed, with just one small room showing a couple of photo albums by pioneering photographers in Istanbul and a map or two. Is that it?

Secondly, there is the big shadow of Edward Said and his embittering theory of Orientalism threaded throughout the show, the premise that all depictions of the Middle East and all forms of appropriation of its culture were handmaidens to the wicked, Western imperial exploitation of the area.

But this rather harsh and inflexible approach militates against the more nuanced vibe of the ‘cultural interactions’ parts of the show. One minute the curators are praising Western craftsmen; the next they are berating the subtle cultural imperialism of copying Islamic designs.

Hence my comment about the unsettling schizophrenia I thought the show suffered from.

3. And when I got to the section on the harem and realised how tragically thin it was, it suddenly crystallised for me how skimpy the rest of the exhibition feels. It feels like it’s trying to address two or three really big issues and not quite doing any of them quite properly.

Alhambra vase, Spain 1800–1899 © Islamic Arts Museum, Malaysia

Writing versus art

I read Orientalism at university four or five years after it was published, when it still had ‘the shock of the new’, before it settled down to become the new orthodoxy taught to each new generation of humanities and art students.

And Said’s book is almost entirely concerned with Orientalist writing – with the supposedly factual works of Orientalist ‘scholars’ (who he systematically debunks) and with the Western literary writers who perpetuated stereotypes about the Exotic East (Byron, Nerval, Flaubert just for starters).

A lot of this kind of writing was produced in the nineteenth century and so Said had a rich vein to draw on, and was able to show how the supposedly ‘scholarly’ writing, and the literary works, easily morphed into official, governing and imperial writing, could be co-opted into government reports and assessments, how anthropological studies could be quoted in business cases for invading Egypt, say, or Iraq.

But it is much harder to divine a particularly patronising, racist or imperialist motive behind a set of porcelain which just happens to use an Islamic motif, or in picture frames which use Arabic script as decoration, or in glassware which incorporates Islamic patterns.

It’s easier to imagine that they were just one among the millions of other ranges of pottery and ceramics and frames produced during the consumer boom of the nineteenth century, which cannibalised motifs and patterns from all available sources – from India and China and Japan to name just a few – if it produced something which would sell.

To see most of the objects in this exhibition as part of an enormous explosion of art and crafts products which catered for the burgeoning middles classes as, to some extent, they still do today.

So my last thought is that maybe the bittiness and thinness of the exhibition is owing to the fact that the curators are trying to illustrate a basically literary theory with works of art and museum objects. And not nearly enough of them to really round out the argument.

Whatever the reason, for me this exhibition contained an entertaining pot-pourri of lovely objects, but didn’t really hang together either as history, or as a sustained exploration of the themes it purports to address.

Promotional video

Curators

  • Julia Tugwell
  • Olivia Threlkeld

Related links

Reviews of other British Museum exhibitions

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