The experience of contemporary tourism is not much different from the trip undertaken by Henri Matisse and Francisco Iturrino in 1911. The two painters went to Tangier in search of what they hoped to find and became reinforced in their preconceived ideas. His later works fed the imaginary about an East of sensual odalischs and forbidden harems. Nor did the avant-garde Paul Klee and August Macke question the prevailing speech when they visited Tunisia shortly after. In one way or another, they all perpetuated the Orientalist fashion that inaugurated the Napoleonic expedition to Egypt between the late 18th and early 19th centuries. And all of them are represented in the exhibition Orientalisms The construction of the imaginary of the Middle East and North Africa (1800-1958), which reviews, through 600 works, the construction of that imaginary in the IVAM rooms.
Not surprisingly, orientalism “is a discipline invented by the West to be able to talk about its opposite, of what it calls oriental,” explains Sergio Rubira, curator of the exhibition with Rogelio López Cuenca. “If the West is rational, the East is irrational. If the West is controlled, East, uncontrolled. If the first is active, the second is passive, ”he adds in his description of a series of stereotypes and clichés of what was then presented as a source of knowledge and that still survive today. “What is evident, as Edward W. Said would describe in his famous Orientalism, is that cultural productions are accompanying military and geopolitical operations, ”says Rogelio López Cuenca, an artist who has worked on the harem as a symbol of the repressed sexuality of Europeans.
The exhibition does not talk about the vision of the other, but about the ethnocentric approach that the obsessions, fantasies and fears that the West projects on the East, on the other. And he does it through a basically chronological tour, which begins in 1800 with Napoleon and ends in 1958 with the end of the Spanish protectorate of Morocco and the independence of Tunisia. A second show at the CAAC in Seville, Desorientalisms, covers the later stage, between the end of the fifties and the present. It addresses the same issue, also from Said’s 1978 book, but from the most recent contributions of creators from North Africa and the Middle East, such as Amina Agueznay, Kamrooz Aram or Ariella Aïsha Azoulay. Curated by Juan Antonio Álvarez, he investigates a geography produced by colonialism and characterized by the purpose of “orientalizing the oriental.” Despite the initial conversations between the IVAM and the CAAC to develop a joint exhibition project, in the end each space has focused on its exhibitions with different approaches.
The motley and ornate arrangement of the works, as referring to nineteenth-century cabinets, characterizes the route in the IVAM with the idea of circulating between arabesques. The paintings of the 19th century give way to the Soviet propaganda of the five-year plans (1928-1932) destined to the Islamic republics or to the pornographic encouragement postcards that sexualized the inhabitants of Egypt, Tunisia or Algeria. The picture of an Arab transposed by having smoked kif exhibits that passivity revealed as a topic that irrationally becomes fierce. “It describes the Arab and Islamic world imprisoned by fatalism, passivity and indolence that are exploited without explanation. That is a fundamental factor for colonial policies, ”says López Cuenca.
Neons that reproduce terms known to the public, such as hijab, punctuate the entire itinerary, which stops at the designs of the Russian Ballets of Diáguilev, reintroducers in the avant-garde Paris of Orientalist fashion, or in Picasso’s obsession with Algerian artist Baya as an exotic stereotype. The screening of films allows us to see how the pyramids “become a perfect setting for commercial cinema,” says Rubira. “The films of the fifties of Hollywood coincide with the Nasser revolution in Egypt, which becomes a leading political subject of the world scene, breaking the idea of the backward Islamic world. Just then, mass culture, cinema, counteracts that image with a return to Sinbad the Sailor Y Arabian Nights, in an example of the political instrumentalization of culture to fix an imaginary, ”says López Cuenca.
Cinema, photography, drawings, sculptures, advertising posters and, above all, painting make up the ambitious exhibition Orientalisms, which has received loans from numerous public and private collections. There is also a large presence of photography, whose birth and boom is parallel to the consolidation of the concept of orientalism. The images of surrealists like Man Ray or Lee Miller share space with those of realism (despite the persistence of the topics) of Soviet photographers.
Already in the last room the intellectual reference to Edward W. Said returns, but this time for some of its gaps, such as the gender perspective, as Rubira points out, or the absence in his analysis of border experiences, such as the Russian or the Spanish, according to López Cuenca. In the heat of the regeneration of 1898, Spain proposes to the organization of the Universal Exhibition of Paris in 1900 to represent the identity of the country with the Castilian sobriety. “But that didn’t interest anyone. The organization wanted to show, flamenco, the Alhambra… ”, the artist points out, while pointing to the photographs and images of Paris, facing the traditional posters of the Moors and Christians, where the second, of course, never loses .
Orientalisms. Valencian Institute of Modern Art. Valencia. Until June 21.
Desorientalisms. Andalusian Center of Contemporary Art. Seville. Until July 5.