Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A Letter to the Orientalists

"Girls Dancing and Singing" by Etienne Dinet (1902). Dinet lived amongst the Ouled Nail tribe to fully understand and capture his hosts honestly. He even converted to Islam.
Or: What Happens When a Costumer's Dream meets a Researcher's Nightmare.

Dear Orientalists (Or: Chers Orientalistes, since I know much of you lot are French),

You make my head hurt.

On one hand, you've done a wonderful thing for the art world and 18th/19th century Western culture, by being some of the first to really portray Eastern cultures (predominately Middle-Eastern and North African) in a positive manner. Many of you didn't seek to look down your noses at these worthy and fascinating peoples, but instead to capture the color and vitality of their daily lives. Some of you were shot at by locals incensed at the idea of human visages being represented in art- a taboo in Muslim cultures. Many of you switched media to photography and watercolors, just so you could paint it accurately and in the moment.

A Bashti-Bazouk, by Jean-Leon Jerome (1869)
On the other hand, some of you took some -ahem- artistic liberties. Imperialism is not my topic-operandi. Discussing how people made other people miserable is not my bag, typically, as I prefer to look at the art, clothing, and culture of a group in hopes that my readers will be inspired to draw from it for their steampunk experience rather than feel a boatload of guilt and hesitate drawing from it. While I'm a fan of Orientalism as pro-looking at other cultures, it's a little daunting to gathering research when a lot of the existing paintings and photography is staged, the clothing is tampered with or fantasized, or simply you've dressed a bunch of French women up as prostitutes in exaggerated costumes or have taken garments from other cultures to create your amalgamation of exotic sexiness.

"Orientalist Interior" by Theodore Chasseriau (1852)
Granted, a lot of the female subjects of Orientalist paintings (particularly the French) were actually prostitutes as no respectable woman would appear before a stranger unveiled and surely wouldn't degrade herself by letting her image be recreated. All the same, the fact that you've flooded the market with photographs of shirtless Tunisian girls in ornate necklaces is a little bit annoying to those of us trying to study garment history.

Beautiful Fatima, a staged photograph of an Algerian woman
And yet... a lot of those fake costumes were pretty drool-worthy, particularly considering them as an alternative for steampunk, where hybridization, creativity, and artistic additions are not only welcomed but encouraged. The age of steampunk never happened- couldn't these photographs, as tawdry and inaccurate of daily life as they were, be considered a similar fiction? I think so, as long as people understand the actual history of whichever photograph or painting they might be looking at- was it created in somebody's house or somebody's studio?

Staged photograph of a Tunisian woman. At least they didn't balk at her eyebrow harquus.
Anyway, thanks for the paintings- some of you need to get over the fact that not all women have porcelain skin and want to have sex with you (Renoir, Ingres, I'm looking at you), but at least a lot of you are trying.

Will post on North Africa soon now that I'm done ranting,

Miss Kagashi

P.S. Harems are not brothels.

 Renoir's Odalisque (1870). Inaccuracy and sexism aside, those clothes are pretty fantastic


  1. To be fair staging scenes in a studio was the norm for Western European painters. So many of these poses are completely western as well. Reclining nude? check
    Woman standing in an S curve? check
    Exposed breasts? check
    Cloth draped artfully? check
    Background details meant mostly to be small still lifes? check

    Although the women are meant to be oriental (today we'd say middle eastern) the poses and the colors and the style are all safely occidental.

    So these painters weren't just exploiting oriental women, they were exploiting all women.

    That being said, they are still great research material and worth viewing in real life.

    I'm going to have to look up more of Jean-Leon Jerome's work. I really love that style of portraiture.

  2. I felt like a huge Orientalist in my costume during TeslaCon, which is...well, a thing. At the end of the day I'm still a white woman dressing up as a Middle Eastern/North African persona, and currently I'm actually planning on going veiled to next year's TeslaCon not only to preserve my character's modesty, but also for added sneakiness. (I'm also a failure at getting you those photos, please forgive me!)

  3. Western art had not, up until the introduction of the reliable photograph, been wholly documentary in nature. Even the simplest portraits were full of editing for content (you must make the king look good) and of allegorical additions (the dog means he's virile!)

    It's really nothing new, then, that the paintings of the Orientalists became nothing but a way to represent what was "Us" by characterizing the "Other" so clearly, with any number of allegorical symbols included. (The black handmaiden implies sexuality, contrasted with the nude white woman, who is clearly virtuous on her own.)

  4. Presuming that there is more to imperialism than "making people miserable", it could be argued that what you are presenting here IS in fact a rich, tactile perspective on imperialist encounters. Miss Kagashi, so many of your wonderfully researched images are impressions of the Other, the subject, from the point of view of the European artist, ethnographer, geographer, etc. So rather than taking refuge in steampunk as a masquerade of Neverwas, you have here a pattern-book for the political imaginings our world is built on. The French & British orientalists didn't just fail to accurately represent other cultures (& genders) : they re- presented them in an imagined form, more easily understandable, desirable, & ultimately rulable. The crazy irony of dressing as imaginary Victorians, is that we assume that Victoriana wasnt imaginary in the first place!

  5. @Mac Actually even so-called documentary photography is not completely objective. The choice of subjects, the types of poses, props, etc. say as much about the photographers as about their subjects. During the Depression in the 1930s, professional photographers from large cities would travel to the rural areas to document the lives and customs of rural Americans. Many of these photographers took with them clothing and other items and PAID the locals to play dress-up and pose for the photos.

  6. http://artrenewal.com/artwork/045/45/39297/Aureli_Giuseppe_Idle_Hours_In_the_Harem_Watercolor-huge.jpg

    So i like this one, because it's just two women chillin. It may be unrealistic, but it certainly isn't doing anyone harm. what do you think?

  7. Just a little fun fact from history. Since proper oriental women were not to appear unveiled before a stranger, some of the pretty girls posing in traditionnal clothing... were actually boys.
    Just a little fact that made me giggle. A lot.