‘Mirror or Mirage’: Redefining Orientalism

Being the first in Asia, the exhibition showcases paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries not previously seen outside Europe or America 


IN THE book “Orientalism” by Palestinian-American intellectual and cultural critic Edward W Said, Orientalism is described with three distinct meanings. 

Firstly, Orientalism is commonly understood as an academic designation, used in various academic institutions. “Oriental Studies” encompasses the study of countries and regions in the Orient, established as a discipline during the colonial era. 

Secondly, Orientalism refers to a broader concept beyond academia. It is a worldview and a representation of the Orient, as the Middle East and North Africa were then called. 

Thirdly, it represents a Western style of dominating, restructuring and asserting authority over the Orient. 

Orientalism is also seen as an aesthetic movement in 18th and 19th-century art that found inspiration in “Oriental” motifs and themes. The concept of Orientalism is a discourse produced by colonial powers from the 19th century onwards, still prevalent in popular notions of “Oriental culture”, foreign policy strategies and interventions directed towards Muslim countries in the Middle East, and cultural encounters with these countries. 

However, orientalism led to racist stereotypes about the East as cultural groups were dehumanised and stripped of natural, human characteristics. 

The Orient was viewed as passive and feminine, leading to an ideal stereotype. Ornamentalism explains the dehumanisation of Asian women, turning them into ornaments rather than people. 

As a result, the West sees the East as feminine, the East sees the West as masculine. 

Since the term Orientalism has been misused, the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) will be hosting a unique exhibition of Orientalism art in hopes to redefine its meaning. 

Being the first in Asia, the exhibition entitled “Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage” showcases paintings from the 19th and early 20th centuries not previously seen outside Europe or America. 

After a joint exhibition “Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art” between the British Museum and the IAMM pre-Covid, Orientalist paintings debuted in Malaysia. 

The exhibition is ongoing from June 3 to Oct 15 and will feature more than 100 Orientalist artworks. Therefore, IAMM sets a precedent in the Islamic world where this collection highlights significant East-West relations. 

Brown was the only artist to paint an Ottoman harem after visiting one, which is shown in the painting ‘A Visit: Harem Interior’

Henriette Brown 

Born as Sophie de Bouteiller (1829-1901), the Parisien painter specialised in genre scenes, especially religious subjects. Her gender, status, and maternal guidance shaped her artistry. 

Despite the loss of many of her pieces, the surviving works of this painter reveal a talented yet marginalised painter. 

Brown was the only artist to paint an Ottoman harem after visiting one, which is shown in the painting “A Visit: Harem Interior.” 

The oil painting depicts the visit of one harem to another, in a ritual of politeness. A group of women, wearing light veils called “yashmaks” for their journey, ascend to their hostess’ minimally furnished apartment (they have brought their own cushions). Upon arrival, only one of the gathered ladies makes any attempt to greet them. 

In the years preceding his conversion, Dinet focused more on religious scenes, as seen in this painting ‘La Prière’

Etienne Dinet 

Alphonse-Etienne Dinet (1861-1921) was also a French Orientalist painter and one of the founders of the Society for French Orientalist Painters. 

He converted to Islam in 1913, adopting the name Nasreddine, and increasingly painted religious scenes in the years leading to his conversion. 

He also learned Arabic and translated Arabic literature into French, while being drawn to North Africa’s culture. 

In “La Prière (The Prayer)”, a man is depicted respectfully praying against a striking backdrop of mountains, representing one of Dinet’s early portrayals of Islamic religious practices in Algeria. 

Presented in the pose of “takbir”, the devotee begins the religious act by facing towards Mecca and raising his hands above his shoulders. 

Jean Baptiste Vanmour 

French artist Jean Baptiste Vanmour (1671-1737) joined Charles de Ferriol in 1699 when the latter was sent as the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. 

Vanmour painted government officials and local people, and remained in Constantinople while de Ferriol returned to France in 1711. 

To cope with demand, Vanmour had assistants reproduce his paintings. But despite his success, he faced financial struggles in his later years. 

“Dinner Given by the Grand Vizier in Honour of an Ambassador” shows a pre-reception dinner hosted by the Grand Vizier for an ambassadorial delegation. 

Antonio Fabrés 

Antoni Maria Fabrés i Costa’s (1854-1938) family were artists, mainly sculptors. In 1875, the Spanish government gave him a sculpture scholarship in Rome then he later moved to Paris and joined Spanish painters living there. 

However, he decided to abandon his chisel for a brush and consequently achieved commercial success in Europe for his exceptional technique. 

“The Guard” is painted in watercolour and gouache, and clearly demonstrates the artist’s fundamental training as a sculptor through the monumental central figure and the well-balanced composition. 

‘Bashi-bazouks Before a Gateway’ by Jovanović features 2 Ottoman irregular soldiers, armed with Algerian rifles (pic source: sothebys.com)

Paul Joanowits 

Serbian artist Pavle Jovanović (1859-1957) studied at the Vienna Academy where he sent his first painting to the art society in Budapest, earning him a Hungarian state scholarship. 

Like his teacher Leopold Carl Müller, he painted oriental images, in Vienna and later in Munich. He signed his works under various names, one of which was Paul Joanowits. 

In the late 19th century, Jovanović painted Serbian uprising scenes for King Alexander. 

“Bashi-bazouks Before a Gateway” features two “bashi-bazouks”, irregular soldiers of the Ottoman army, who are dressed in all their regalia and armed with flintlock rifles from Algeria. 

Robertson’s ‘The Street of the Ghoreeyah, Cairo’ depicts one the most famous 19th-century bazaars within the city of Cairo (pic source: bonhams.com)

Charles Robertson 

British artist Charles Robertson (1844-1891) was a painter of landscapes and genres, in oil, watercolour and engraving. 

He studied art in London and went to Aix-en-Provence in France in the early 1860s. 

In Aix, he learned about budding art scene in the Arab world and went to tour Algeria in 1862. In 1863, he exhibited “Bouggasik” Algeria No 26 at The Royal Academy. 

“The Street of the Ghoreeyah, Cairo” depicts one of the two most famous 19th-century bazaars within the city of Cairo, on an epic scale. 

The Most Prominent Exhibition in the World

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim officiated the launch of the exhibition and admitted that “Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage” is unique. 

Therefore, he urged everyone to attend during the school holidays. “Perhaps not many are aware of this exhibition. It is quite unique as it is not presented in any other country except at the Museum of London. Even there, it is only showcased on a small scale. 

“Take advantage of this opportunity, as usually people have to pay hundreds or thousands of ringgit to appreciate exceptional works that are not accessible to the public. This (exhibition) is made available from the Auction House at a huge price,” he said in his speech. 

Anwar stated that Madani empowers people through the economy and cultural aspects like literature and arts. 

“It would be regrettable for a culturally diverse country like Malaysia, with strong Islamic roots and a blend of Indian, Chinese and Indigenous cultures, to hinder the progress of art, culture and performing arts due to excessive focus on economic matters or an obsession with Western influences,” he added. 

He appealed to conglomerates to support the development of Malaysia’s arts scene, among others. 

Also present were Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil and Albukhary Foundation chairman Tan Sri Syed Mokhtar Albukhary. 

  • This article first appeared in The Malaysian Reserve weekly print edition