Constructing and Reconstructing Orientalism: Depicting Orientalist Imagery in Contemporary Art in the Quest of Self-Identity

Constructing and Reconstructing Orientalism: Depicting Orientalist Imagery in Contemporary Art in the Quest of Self-Identity

Julijana Nicha Andrade (Federal University of Minas Gerais, Brazil)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-7180-4.ch006
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The purpose of the chapter is to show that orientalism is a dynamic construct that simultaneously represents continuity and change. The hypothesis outlines that contemporary artists build upon 18th century symbols to reconstruct orientalist art, hence reproducing the constructed, stereotypical neo-orientalist or self-orientalist imagery. The hypothesis is seen to be true as the intimate artwork of Zahrin Kahlo, Lalla Essaydi, Eric Parnes, and Yasmina Bouziane shows that contemporary orientalist artists are using recurring symbols to depict their self-identity, even though they appropriate those symbols in an act of resistance to depict social change. A more productive path of expression may be one of authenticity rather than a recreation of existing imagery in the attempt to deconstruct it. Even though the continuity of the construct is obvious, change is granular and not as pronounced.
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During colonial periods, the Orient represented a mystical, magical place that was to be studied by Western explorers and government officials. It represented the binary opposite of the West, barbaric, exotic, erotic, unknown and un-civilized. Later, Orientalism became an influential theory introduced by Edward Said, which outlines the Western attitude and stereotyping towards the Eastern peoples (Said, 1978). As Said (1978) argues, the root of the stereotypical representations of the Orient is in the 18th Century French and British colonization of the Middle East and North Africa that depicted the Orient as very static and monotonic. In Said’s words “…as if they have consensually agreed on one common representation.” (1978, p. 20). Similarly, in Root’s words “[T]he quality of timelessness and the presentation of Araby as a static, decadent entity well past its prime helped create an imaginary Orient undifferentiated by place, time, and national or cultural specificity” (1996, p. 164). Among the many examples of these representations are the Orientalist paintings of French Neoclassical artists as Delacroix, Gerome, and many others who depicted women, men and sceneries of Algeria and Morocco through the eyes of the male Western explorer.

The historical background of the relationship between Orientalism and visual arts starts with the origins of the French Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture which later became Academy De Beaux-Arts. The Academy emphasized the intellectual component of artmaking and distinguished the sophisticated bourgeoisie painters from the ordinary craftsman. After its recognition by Louis XIV, the Academy De Beaux-Arts controlled all artistic and academic activity in France and heavily influenced the academic teaching at the Royal Academy of England and the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts (Trodd & Denis, 2000). The standardization of the academic painting trends was enforced by the rigorous acceptance criteria to the Paris Salon that was the exhibition place where artists could seal their carriers. Only artists who strictly followed the academic standards could have a chance of exhibiting (Ibid).

Key Terms in this Chapter

Self-Organization: A combination of self-schemas that are dominant and construct the self-identity at a given time.

Self-Orientalism: A conscious or unconscious self-identification with constructed Orientalist images.

Visual Narratives: Combination of visual symbols and gestures that when summed portray a message. Visual narratives can be sculptures, paintings, photographs, and other forms of visual art.

Neo-Orientalism: A continuation of Orientalist thought. Neo-Orientalists are intellectuals of Oriental descent, appropriating the Orientalist bias and actively engaging with political and intellectual events occurring in the East and the West.

Self-Schemas: Unconscious belief about oneself that activates when the individual needs to understand or process specific pieces of information.

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