Together with Wesam Mohamed (Egypt, ITP 2015), we had an opportunity to visit Inspired by the East, a new exhibition at the British Museum. The show explores eastern inspirations in western art, analysing five centuries of these artistic interactions. Through collaboration with the Kuala Lumpur-based Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, the Museum shows objects never presented outside of Malaysia before. These are displayed alongside the Museum’s world-class Islamic collection, as well as several loans.

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The theme traces the long and complex interactions between Europe and North America in the ‘west’ and North Africa and the Middle East in the ‘east’, in its core examining the tradition of Orientalism. This representation of the east in western arts, often blurring the lines between fantasy and reality, attracted many great western painters in the past, Eugène Delacroix, John Frederick Lewis and Frederick Arthur Bridgman.

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Interestingly, the exhibition not only focuses on paintings but also expands the case on other aspects of visual and decorative arts, such as ceramics, photography, glass jewellery, manuscripts and clothing, including also contemporary art.

Today, Orientalism is a highly charged and contested term, and while Orientalist arts and crafts rapidly declined in popularity from the 1940s, its visual language has remained a potent resource for some artists today. The exhibition concludes with four contemporary reactions to the imagery of Orientalism by Middle Eastern and North African female artists. These works – including Lalla Essaydi’s Women of Morocco triptych and Inci Eviner’s 2009 video work Harem – speak back to Orientalist representations of the east, subverting and undermining works by earlier European and North American artists.

Olivia Threlkeld, co-curator of the exhibition at the British Museum said: ‘Orientalism was one of the defining elements of the 19th and 20th centuries, comparable to other ‘isms’ like Surrealism and Impressionism, but it is largely forgotten today outside of academic circles. This will be a rare opportunity in the UK to see these important artworks from southeast Asia’s largest museum dedicated to Islamic art, and to think about Orientalism’s impact on art history and its legacy today.’

After its run at the British Museum, the exhibition will open at the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia from 20 June – 22 October 2020. It will be accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue published by the British Museum Press.

Inspired by the east follows the opening in October 2018 of The Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum which displays the Museum’s world-class Islamic collection to tell a more universal story of Islam in a global context.

Natalia 

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