In his landmark 1978 book Orientalism, Palestinian-American literary critic, Edward Said defined Orientalism as a discourse that supported both colonial expansion and Western fantasies of the Arab “other.” Portraying Arab and Muslim societies as backwards and inferior, Said argued, offered a foil for Western European cultural identity and its industrial and social development.
While Said’s original treatise on Orientalism cited historical and literary examples of Western exploitation, his analysis of Orientalism accommodates the Western-driven depiction of non-Western subjects present in Orientalist art. In recent decades, artists of Arab and Muslim origin, as well as a number of non-Arab and non-Muslim origin, have taken on the Orientalist stereotypes, re-envisioning and re-claiming subjects such as the Women of Algiers in compelling art works and using a variety of mediums and techniques to challenge stereotypes of the Orient by creatively rejecting and re-imagining images with their own messages, and on their own terms.
Houria Niati (b. 1948)
In her 1982 work, No To Torture, Houria Niati questions the exotic stereotype perpetuated by Orientalist artists like Delacroix. Her work reflects a newly independent Algeria liberated from French colonial rule and the contemporary Algerian woman. The lack of clothing, jewelry, and carpets represents the naked truth of feminine reality. Niati’s women are depicted in expressive strokes and intense primary colors, evoking the artist’s anger over the suffering of the Algerian people and the exploitation of women. However, her work also reveals her admiration for Delacroix’s use of pigment, as she adopts his subject and style for a new century.
Anton Solomoukha (b. 1945)
Anton Solomoukha signals a change in Western perceptions of Orientalist authenticity in his painting The Turkish Bath, modeled after an 1862 painting by Jean-Dominique Ingres. The main figures in the painting are all based on earlier Ingres nudes and the anatomical incorrectness of the bather with her arms overhead echoes the anatomical incorrectness of The Grand Odalisque. The lack of originality in Ingres’ painting, along with his thinly-veiled attempt at using the exotic to depict women of otherwise European appearance in sexualized, passive poses, makes The Turkish Bath a target for many feminist and anti-Orientalist artists and authors.
Solomoukha’s piece combines photography and painting, in a post-modernist recreation of Ingres’ original bath scene. Like Niati, Solomoukha’s art seems intent on showcasing the women in the painting as the Orientalists really saw them, but instead of obscuring the details, Solomoukha’s clear-cut images of the women standing out against the dark background, lustily exposes the figures’ bodies to the audience, without the pretense of an Orientalist décor. The pink tights and tattoos adorning the models, along with the “traditional” head scarves worn by a number of the women refute the supposed timelessness of the models, and the in-authenticity of the supposedly “Turkish” bath is exposed as a pornographic playground.
The Guerrilla Girls is an artistic group of feminists operating under anonymity. The consider themselves the “conscience of culture,” and present feminist perspectives on many traditionally male aspects of culture and society. They enjoy using an element of humor to convey their position, prompt discussion, and challenge the world in general to reconsider its male-centered traditions and ideologies. In addition to publishing several books, the Guerrilla Girls have held several art exhibitions to publicize their point of view. Summarily put, their mission is to “use facts, humor and outrageous visuals to expose sexism, racism and corruption in politics, art, film and pop culture.” Read more about the group on their website.
Fahrelnissa Zeid (1901-1991)
Zeid’s work Lady in Blue (undated) references Matisse’s odalisque subject but in her own distinct style. She gives the portrait an expressive countenance while maintaining a sense of mystery and complexity.
Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956)
Lalla Essaydi was trained in Paris and has lived in Saudi Arabia and the United States. She created a series of photographs titled “Converging Territories” as a means of exploring and expressing the position of women through mixed media. In the photograph, we see a line of four women progressing from youth to adulthood (if one is looking right to left as one would read Arabic, Essaydi’s native language). The older the female figure, the more thoroughly she is covered; however, all four subjects, their clothing, and the setting are also decorated in calligraphy done in henna paint.
By writing in calligraphy—typically an art form practiced by men—with henna, a paint used by women to decorate their hands and feet for traditional ceremonies, Essaydi both embraces and refutes the gender roles of traditional Moroccan society. Although veiling is not mandatory in Morocco, the calligraphic writing—Essaydi’s own poems and reflections, also serve to give the women in the photograph a means of expressing themselves in spite of the fact they are covered in layers of cloth representing traditional cultural and/or religious roles of women that restricted their ability to express themselves. In the 2008 exhibit “Crossroads” by Waterhouse & Dodd, Essaydi expressed her desire to articulate many messages in her paintings in the following words: “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.” Many of Essaydi’s works also echo the work of nineteenth century orientalists, such as Femmes du Maroc #1 (2005), Femmes du Maroc: Grand Odalisque (2008), and Moorish Woman (2008).
Other works by Essaydi: Converging Territories #3, #12, and #22 (2003)
Other Artists Responding to Orientalism:
Irving Penn (1917-2009)
Two Guedras (1972)
Zineb Sedira (b. 1963)
The Virgin Mary and I (2000)