Symposium: East-West Dialogue in Art History and Visual Culture

A 15th c. copy of the Dala’il al-Khayrat from the Chester Beatty Library’s collections. (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.)

On November 13th, I had the pleasure of attending a symposium in Trinity’s Long Room Hub called “East-West Dialogue in Art History and Visual Culture,” hosted by the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies. The topic (cultural mixing between Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East), is a pet interest of mine, planted as an adolescent in the post 9/11 world, watered by my French studies as an undergraduate [1], and (I’m out of metaphorical verbs here)’d by an independent study on francophone literature of the Maghreb during grad school. My scholarship quickly turned to more familiar waters (i.e. Western modernism), but my interest in post-colonial North Africa was rekindled by a trip to the Chester Beatty Library in March 2013. I saw amongst its collection of beautiful medieval manuscripts a very early sharing of iconographies which I hadn’t realized existed. Although I am by no means an expert on Arabic or visual cultures, I’ve chosen to preserve what I learned during Trinity’s symposium in this blog post. If any of the above ideas float your boat, read on. I’ll organize my thoughts by paper title/presenter.


“Visual and Literary Pleasures in East-West Dialogue: Reconsidering the Female and Orientalist Gaze”

Professor Reina Lewis, University of the Arts London, England

The Princess Nazli Hanum, by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

The Princess Nazli Hanum, by Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann

As a master’s student at the University of Virginia, I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Joseph Allen Boone, author of the recently published Homoerotics of Orientalism, so I had a general awareness of the complexities of the interplay between Orientalism and homoeroticism, but Professor Lewis opened up the conversation by discussing the female Orientalist gaze, marking harems as a space where Western women could safely project homoerotic pleasure. (Professor Lewis’s paper was theory-intensive and so I’m sure my synopsis is extremely reductive—she has many books and articles if you’d like to learn more. [2]) In particular, I enjoyed the space she gave to dismantling gender and sexuality binaries (i.e. alternative genders in a Middle Eastern context, and distinguishing between homoerotic pleasures and homosexuality on the part of an author or artist). Professor Lewis focused on a few artists and authors in particular: Selma Eckrem, author of Unveiled: The Autobiography of a Turkish Girl, Elisabeth Jerichau-Baumann, a Polish Orientalist painter who took Egyptian princess (and close friend) Nazli Hanum for her erotic subject, and Sophie Anderson, a French-born English genre painter.

The Concept of Alterity in Nineteenth-Century French Orientalism, with Particular Reference to the Work of Eugène Fromentin and Gustave Guillaumet in Algeria

Professor Barbara Wright, Trinity College Dublin, Ireland

Professor Wright explored the economy of Orientalist painting through the works of Eugène Fromentin and Gustave Guillaumet, both French Orientalist painters, drawing a connection to Eugène Delacroix as well. North Africa, she explained, was viewed by Western audiences as living antiquity, and illustrated by Orientalist artists in a Biblical (Fromentin) or Classical (Delacroix) vein. These artists attempted to give an appearance of verisimilitude, like a painted version of photojournalism for their European audiences. However, Professor Wright illustrated that Orientalism’s focus on showmanship and the affective experience of the work links it to Romantic painting. She included excerpts from Guillaumet’s writing, which show his increasingly complex understanding of colonial rule in the wake of several French massacres he witnessed:

“This race of shepherds, aggressive and gullible, will never accept French domination.”

Orientalisms and Revivals

Professor Doris Behrens-Abouseif, University of London, England

The Mosque of al-Rifai, begun in 1869 in the Neo-Mamluk style, Cairo. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, Mohammed Moussa.

In her paper, Professor Behrens-Abouseif described the process which led to a resurgence of ancient Egyptian-inspired architecture (the Neo-Mamluk style) made possible through colonialism. Egypt did not have a native art history field, so while popular interest in ancient architecture existed, it was not studied as an academic discipline. The French architect Pascal Coste is credited with revitalizing the Mamluk style, but adding a Beaux-Arts emphasis on symmetry and rendering the Mamluk elements more decorative than useful. (For example, domes which served as mausoleums in Mamluk architecture are reduced to rooftop focal points in Neo-Mamluk architecture.). However, the revival(/invention?) of this style and the interest of Western artists and others in “authentic” Egyptian objects led to a revival of traditional crafts, influenced by Italian Orientalist painter Nicola Forcella.  An additional complication is the presence of Andalusian architecture during the period–while official buildings celebrated Egyptian nationalism through their Neo-Mamluk styling under the auspices of Isma’il Pasha, the wealthy wanted European-style dwellings to link themselves to Western “progress.”

Osman Hamdi Bey: An Ottoman Orientalist

Professor Zeynep Inankur, Mimar Sinan Fine Arts University, Istanbul, Turkey

Ladies, by Osman Hamdi Bey. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Professor Inankur’s lecture was particularly beautiful, presenting the works of Osman Hamdi Bey, the only native Orientalist painter. Professor Inankur problematized previous claims that Hamdi Bey’s work contained messages for the people of the Ottoman empire, pointing out that it was presented almost exclusively to Western audiences. However, he did contribute new ideas to the Orientalist genre, including very modern depictions of women outside in fashionable dress, rather than simply in the harem. Professor Inankur added that Hamdi Bey’s paintings were a form of pastiche—to give the desired effect of verisimilitude, Hamdi Bey painted from photographs of himself in traditional dress, of traditional Muslim architecture, and of attractive objects from the Ottoman Museum. He modified the architecture in particular to add more “Muslim” elements, such as Arabic script, but the overall effect one was of vivid hyper-reality.

When Is It Western and When Isn’t It: The Role of Lebanese Art in (Western) Art History

Dr. Kirsten Scheid, American University of Beirut, Lebanon

I must admit, by the last lecture of the day, my attention was flagging, and so Dr. Scheid’s theory-based paper went a bit over my head. Suffice it to say, she focused on Lebanese artist Moustapha Farroukh and his student, Saloua Raouda Choucair, placing them in conversation with the expanding definition of global modernism.


[1] I wrote a thesis applying French feminist theory through the works of Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva to the French “abstract citizen” model, as a critique and reformulation of French citizenship, creating from within French theory a system which would engage rather than marginalize North African immigrants. And yes, I couldn’t resist telling you this, even though I now recognize that my work was hopelessly naïve and academic.

[2] This disclaimer holds for every paper I’m summarizing here.

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