(MENAFN- Qatar Foundation ) Doha, Qatar, 21 November 2023: With artistic portrayals of Arab and Asian identities through the eyes of the West often being inaccurate and leading to negative stereotyping, Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates has delved into how Orientalist art has shaped these perceptions and stereotypes over centuries.
The Doha Debates Town Hall, which took place at Qatar Foundation (QF) partner university Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts in Qatar and focused on ‘Orientalism Demystified: Eastern Insights on Western Myths’, explored whether museums should still present Orientalist works in their collections, given the often negative connotations these artworks carry.
Orientalism began as an artistic, aesthetic movement that examined how the West viewed the Arab, North African and Asian worlds. In parts of the 18th and 19th Century, art portrayed people from the West as masculine, rational and superior, while those from the East were villainous, barbaric, and exotic, with women in particular depicted as helpless – negative stereotypes still reflective today in modern culture.
But as journalist, author, and commentator Fatima Bhutto explained at the Doha Debates event, Orientalism is not just an artistic movement; it can have real world implications on how people view each other, and can reinforce harmful stereotypes.
“These stereotypes absolutely influence how the West views the East,” she said. “To be able to get away with trying to conquer those in the East, the West had to portray itself as a paragon of virtue, science, rationale, and enlightenment, while portraying the East as the opposite – savage, barbaric, and fanatical.
“It’s a fantasy that’s happened for hundreds of years. We know it’s still pervasive now because we still live through it every single day, although sometimes it’s more transparent than others. It’s a dehumanizing language that’s still used, in everything from the media to Hollywood films.”
Inaya Folarin Iman, a broadcast journalist, commentator, and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery in London, said: “Often, the most thought provoking and compelling artworks are deeply offensive because they challenge us and ask us to question deeply held taboos.
“Two very different and mutually exclusive opposing views can each have compelling and sincere justification, and as long as we are open to discussing them as citizens and human beings, it is OK for us to come to different conclusions.”
Kholood Al-Fahad, a writer, researcher, and the Deputy Director of curatorial affairs at the Lusail Museum, aired her belief that art from previous centuries is not always created through first-hand knowledge. “Orientalist art is the intersection between fact and fiction, and imagination and reality,” she said. “It gives a lot of freedom for interpretation, as artists don’t have access to what they paint, and therefore can only imagine it, often meaning that the depiction is not accurate.
“Artists often invaded very private spaces when creating art, like portraying females in areas where men – especially foreigners – would not be permitted to enter. But by portraying ladies as accessories in what they see as an exotic paradise, artists deprive those women of their rich culture and dynamic life, because it’s hidden behind what the painter thinks and wants to see.”
Agreeing with Al-Fahad on art being created by an artist unfamiliar with their subject matter, Intissar Rebouh – one of a number of students and graduates who were onstage during the Town Hall event to share their own experiences and insights into Orientalism art – said: “Some of these depictions can be harmful, if they have negative imagery or connotations, but some can also clearly express the past.
“Jewelry, clothes, and architecture can be an accurate reflection of our history, so we can engage with the art and take some value from it, as long as we’re aware of its accuracy.”
Recent graduate Lafan Hassan told the event: “I think art is a form of expression, and with expression comes context and history. The first step to questioning anything is to be exposed to it.
“I agree with decolonizing art, but not necessarily removing it. Art is not just in museums but everywhere, including on social media, where it can be deconstructed, so why can’t museums do the same thing?”
However, Hashmatullah Rahimi, a Student Art Teacher from the American University in Afghanistan, disagreed, saying: “For me, museums mean much more than just a place to exhibit the history of a country.
“They are what educate and shape future generations, because whatever we exhibit impacts us morally and spiritually. We need to care about Orientalist art that is close to the stereotypes the West portrays of our cultures when it’s negative and wrong, and stop future generations from believing it’s reality when it’s not.”
But Iman explained it is not only those from the East who are critical of the way they are portrayed in art, saying: “It’s important to recognize the diversity of the West, too, so we don’t stereotype others in return.
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