There has recently been a resurgence of insisting on regarding imperial history and colonization as forces for good and positive exchange in response to calls for decolonization. An accompanying phenomenon has been the repackaging of orientalism — the depiction of Muslim-majority cultures as a fundamentally foreign “other,” in contrast to Eurocentric values — through the production, ownership, and presentation of orientalist art. The latter occurs in two distinct yet related forms: the museum art exhibition and formal visual analysis of a single work. However, a persistent emphasis on cross-cultural artistic influence without its colonialist contexts serves to depict orientalism as a benign mode of aesthetics rather than as the ideological justification for European colonialist violence and subjugation.
In conjunction with the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, a recent exhibition at the British Museum, Inspired by the Islamic East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, purported to display cultural objects that reflect “artistic exchange between East and West.” Despite exhibition plaques quoting Edward Said, the wall text euphemistically referred to Europeans as “increasingly curious and aggressive in their dealings with those outside their borders” and re-frames orientalism as a benign artistic fascination with the “other.” Rather than interrogating European colonialist activities or the use of the amorphous term “East,” the exhibition curators further contented themselves with the idea that the rise of the Safavid and Ottoman empires reflected “more evenly balanced” relations between Europe and Western Asia. The exhibition thus bent over backwards to emphasize that Europeans were also seen as an “other” by those in the “East,” and that Europeans’ own fascinations resulted merely in the designs and artistic inspirations evident in the ceramics, paintings, and illustrations on display. While a geometric design on a vase may not be driven by the same level of power dynamics more evident in other artistic forms, the objects on display are clearly meant to emphasize orientalism as artistic exchange and benign observation of domestic and religious life rather than as the justifying ideology of violent European colonialism and expansion.
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Ironically, the exhibition also displayed contemporary female West Asian art as a form of corrective to the passive “Eastern” female subjects of European orientalist art. However, the soft-focus orientalism of the exhibition — where the usually nude female subject of a European harem painting is mainly clothed and the most egregiously orientalist works are nowhere to be seen — conveniently served as a form of Islamic public diplomacy. This diplomacy seeks civilizational validation through Western admiration of Islamic art forms and appreciative depictions of Muslim prayer and Quran study. In turn, European institutions like the British Museum benefit from Islamic institutional partners “from the East” as defenses against claims of orientalism in their exhibitions. Furthermore, such framing neatly sidestepped the co-sponsorship of the exhibition by Standard Chartered Bank — which began its existence as the financial arm of British colonialist expansion — one of many long-standing, neo-imperialist relationships the British Museum maintains.
A more subtle way of soft-pedaling orientalism can lie in the formal analytical method of “close looking.” Take Jason Farago’s recent, smooth-paced visual analysis of a manuscript painting of Mughal ruler Shah Jahan via the New York Times. Farago’s stated aim is to uncover what makes the Shah Jahan painting an “Islamic” manuscript — or more accurately, how this manuscript reflects a confluence of Hindu-Muslim artistic production, a framework implicitly aimed at addressing current religio-nationalist politics in India. However, in applying this corrective view, Farago glosses over the aggressive territorial wars waged by European imperialists on the subcontinent to instead argue that Europeans were primarily enamored by Mughal art and architecture in their interactions. Mere art appreciation is then spun as the colonizers’ main motives. Thus, agents of the Dutch and British East India companies, the violently capitalist corporations that were the forerunners to formal European colonization of the Indian subcontinent, are merely noted as “English and Dutch traders” who were dazzled by the Mughals. Shah Jahan’s Taj Mahal “proved irresistible to foreigners” like Mary of Teck, “queen of England and empress of India,” who is somehow noted as the ruler of a British colony and yet seemingly is divorced from the ruthlessly expansionist British Empire itself. Farago further engages in clever sleight of hand with his narrative of how the Mughal empire “faded away” when “the colonists of the Raj” — a deliberately misleading way of referring to the colonial administrators of the British Empire — “took over.”
Just as egregiously, Farago’s analysis of the Shah Jahan painting is imbued with essentializing depictions whose roots lie in colonialist boundaries and orientalist discourse. In his attempts to highlight Muslim-Hindu hybridity under Shah Jahan’s rule, the terms “Muslim” and “Hindu” are presented as polar opposites with anachronistically demarcated spaces and cultures, despite the fact that socio-economic and linguistic ties, rather than religious identity, were often drivers of intercommunal engagement. Furthermore, Farago depicts Muslims only as either cross-culturally enlightened or “fundamentalist” — an anachronistic term — based solely on their supposed relationship to depicting figures in art.
Farago’s approach to non-religious cultural engagement also suffers from false contrasts. His analysis bafflingly places “Persia” — more an orientalist construct than a real place, which is more accurately described as the territories under the Timurid and Safavid empires — as an exotic “faraway source.” He also conflates “Persia” with Persianate culture, a shared linguistic and aesthetic framework that spanned a much wider geographical expanse that included Central Asia. Most problematic, however, is the subtle reinforcement of the idea that there exists an essentialized “India,” and that Muslims and “Persian” art truly come from elsewhere. Hence Farago’s misplaced commentary that the painting is “a Muslim masterpiece made 2,500 miles from Mecca.”
Despite his emphasis on these supposed polar opposites under Mughal rule, Farago somehow seamlessly integrates later European influence into Mughal art. We thus see, in both the British Museum exhibition and Farago’s visual analysis, the centering of artistic influence at the expense of the historical realities of European imperialism. This framework functions as a purveyor of European innocence through the persistent, erroneous assertion that unless all orientalist art can be directly traced back to violent ideology, orientalism as a whole cannot be that bad. In doing so, both art institutions and critics utilize their authoritative status to reinforce a status quo built on colonialist frameworks that view non-Eurocentric cultures as inferior and worthy of subjugation. We must recognize the harm of how a focus on merely exchanging aesthetics of the “other” creates a false “both sides” dynamic, rendering invisible the internationally unbalanced power dynamics that created colonial subjugation and inequalities in the first place. This whitewashing of orientalism and colonialism has no justification if art institutions and critics wish to claim to accurately depict historical context. Otherwise, it is clear that they refuse to meaningfully engage with the repercussions of Europe’s colonial past that persist to this day.