Saturday, August 23, 2008

"The Lure of the East" - British Orientalist Paintings - Exploring Self-reflection

The painting exhibition at Tate Britain London this summer, significantly titled "The Lure of the East. British Orientalist Painting" (4 June - 31 August) is an art collection that should not be missed - by those interested in Orientalism but, moreover, by the general public, with a view to bridging the gap between western and eastern cultures in order to understand better the global society we live in.

The main highlights of the exhibition are:

- the mashrabiya woodwork in the Harem section - which is the very heart of the exhibition. You can feel priviledged to see and feel the atmosphere created by mashrabiya, especuially if this is your first time.

- the painting titled Arab Interior, by Arthur Melville in 1881 - which is also the herald of the whole exhibition and which accurately illustrates a great sense of the eastern culture, in nuce;

- the famous portrait of Lord Byron, by Thomas Phillips in 1814: the mix of the two cultures is striking;

- the video projections, which tell the story of the travelling;

- the many eastern life instances, including the beautiful camel eyes (which you can feel for real if you look closer) in the desert or the charm of the eastern storyteller in the public market corner or the mystery and wisdom of the Kuran reader and the tranquility of the carpet seller. In this respect, all explanations of the paintings are very useful to read.

But I think primarily, this art show can give us the opportunity to understand the cultural gap that exists between the two parts of the world, largely due to miscommunication, false identities and enforcement of self-perception on the others. Personally, I tried to perceive this event critically regarding the artists who travelled to the east in the 18th, 19th and 20th century - I could appreciate their great effort of depicting eastern instances of daily life, the desert, the markets and public places, etc. However, many mistakes, inaccuracies and even biast self-reflections are more than obvious. One painting that illustrates this shows a Muslim man praying on the carpet with his shoes on. The image is painfully close to a sacrilege and revolt is unavoidable even for Christian eyes...Other too mnay instances depict Arab women who look too much like European fantasies - hence the misconstruction of reality, which is laughable but sad and disheartening at the same time.

These facts raise, in my opinion, the question of objectivity, of real communication between the two worlds, ultimately of respect and communion. All these issues seem even more present in our century, too, ironically or not. I found it very interesting to see the roots of this struggling dialogue of today in the mistaken depictions of the past...

What ways are there for people to bring authentic cultural communication between the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, etc worlds, I wonder? Who can make a difference in all this struggle?

1 comment:

Gordy Thomas said...

Especially in the West, we find it very easy and satisfying to evaluate and define those of other cultures.

We think of this as being an objective approach to becoming culturally enlightened.

Sadly, what we accomplish is little more than the collection of abstract data.

What is lacking is our ability and willingness to EXPERIENCE each other.

A great physician does not limit her interaction with patients to the asking of questions and the observations made with the eyes.

There is a tactile component of diagnosis which cannot be avoided if there is a sincere desire to truly understand the needs of the patient.

We cannot fend off each other "at arms length" while also claiming to know and understand those who seem to be different from us.

Instead, we can share the rituals of daily life with each other: walking together, eating together, playing together, etc.

For myself, as an Orthodox Christian, it is hypocritical for me to approach the cup of communion when I refuse to eat my daily meals with anyone who is not of "my own kind".