Natacha Atlas

The Age of the Neo-Orientalists

Examining the allure of the ‘exotic’ East among contemporary Middle Eastern artists

Not long ago – in the 18th and 19th Centuries to be somewhat precise – the sights, sounds, and marvels of the Middle East were a source of wonder and inspiration for some of Europe’s finest visual artists, authors, and composers. However, although they were fascinated by the Orient, their perception of it was largely distorted, as many of them – some of whom had never ever been to the East – had a tendency to over-glorify and emphasize the ‘eccentricities’ and peculiarities therein, and in doing so, forged exaggerated images, generalizations, and stereotypes of a largely pejorative (yet fanciful nonetheless) nature, many of which still persist to date.

While Orientalism was the subject of much enthusiasm and adoration among European audiences longing for a taste of ‘exotica’ in its heyday, in the 20th Century it became the target of much criticism. This criticism, and indeed, denouncement was particularly pronounced in the case of Eastern scholars, such as Edward W. Said who in 1978 penned what is often referred to as the definitive book on the subject, simply entitled Orientalism.

Considering the amount of denigration and disgust towards the subject on the part of Easterners, it is interesting to observe how many of them have come to mimick the ways of the Orientalists themselves. Following in the tradition of their European predecessors, such artists – particularly visual artists, novelists, and filmmakers – have glorified, exaggerated, and fantasised about an East, which, far from being real, is more the stuff of dreams and fancy. As well, like the Europeans, many of them have had only brief encounters with the East, if any, and as such, their credibility is often subject to debate.

That being said, however, these ‘neo-Orientalists’ differ from the likes of the Orientalists of old, especially with respect to their motivations, as well as their circumstances. For one, it can be said that the Orientalists of Eastern descent – generally speaking – do not long for, or fantasise about foreign, alien environs of which they know little, and show little sympathy and understanding towards; rather, their works seem to reflect a longing and desire for the now-faded magic and splendour of the lands of their origin (a sort of ‘Other’ in their case), which they hope to resurrect from the ravages of time and reintroduce to the world. Furthermore, while these Orientalists almost exclusively idealise the East of the past, their progenitors fantasised about the East of their times as well, indicating a strong nostalgic presence in the works produced today.

Nacer Khemir - Wanderers of the Desert

Still from Nacer Khemir’s Wanderers of the Desert

Where literature is concerned, many recent works by Iranian-American authors serve as illuminating examples of the recent resurgence in Orientalism. For example, novels such as Anita Amirrezvani’s The Blood of Flowers, and more recently, Equal of the Sun celebrate and bring to life the heady, golden days of Safavid Persia in a way that would even give James Morier (author of the famous Orientalist novel The Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan) a run for his money. In reading these novels, one can observe an unusual emphasis on the exotic, evident in the preponderance of italicised terms and phrases, which for the most part, play no role other than arousing the curiosity of the reader, as well as spectacular scenes and settings one would only encounter on the most encompassing of tours in Esfahan. Though Amirrezvani’s novels reflect an ardour and passion for Persian history and culture, it’s blatantly evident that – as she herself admits – she was not raised in Iran, and has little contact with the land she so magically brings to life in her novels. Likewise, novels such as The Saddlebag and Paper by Bahiyyih Nakhjavani, another Iranian-American author, also idealise Safavid-era Persia and are rich with exotic images of the fantastic, which vividly bring to mind episodes from celebrated Orientalist works such as Voltaire’s Zadig and Montesquieu’s Persian Letters.

Following in the tradition of their European predecessors, such artists have glorified, exaggerated, and fantasised about an East, which, far from being real, is more the stuff of dreams and fancy

Furthermore, such fantastic and outlandish depictions of the East of old can be experienced through the films of Nacer Khemir, the celebrated Tunisian filmmaker, author, and poet, best known for his Desert Trilogy. Set in Tunisia, Andalusia, and Iran, among other locations, the films in Khemir’s trilogy are vibrant, colourful, and seductive portals to the lost world of the Thousand and One Nights, and make no reservations in animating the grandeur, mystery, and magic of the tales of the Perso-Arabic storytelling tradition. Quite naturally, in films such as Wanderers of the Desert, The Dove’s Lost Necklace, and Bab’ Aziz, among other things, one comes across jinns (genies), sorcerers and sages, wandering dervishes, prophets, and scribes – characters widely featured in the works of the European Orientalists, and which still constitute the more benign image/stereotype of the Middle East encountered today.

Literature and film aside, it is perhaps in art that we can best observe the fascination of artists of Middle Eastern origin with the ‘exotic’ East. In a series of works by the Egyptian photographer Youssef Nabil, for example, one sees Natacha Atlas (the popular Arabic musician) donned in garb comely of a concubine, sprawled in an assortment of poses. In one photo, she is seen reclining expressionlessly on a divan, while in another, she lies prostrate on the floor, clutching a shisha pipe suggestively between her breasts, in what could well be a harem of sorts. Moreover, in another photographic series entitled Black Tears, Yemeni artist Ibi Ibrahim depicts the love story of a master who has fallen in love with his two black slaves, in an assortment of scenes which recall the lore of the Thousand and One Nights, as well as the imagery of 19th Century Orientalist paintings. Moreover, the seductive photographs in Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s Harem series clearly reference the works of the Orientalists in their imagery, settings, and the poses of their subjects, in their depictions of the hidden realm of the harem in the medieval Islamic world.

Lalla Essaydi

From Lalla Essaydi’s ‘Harem’ series

As well, interestingly enough, some contemporary artists of Middle Eastern descent have even used the subject of Orientalism as the basis for their art. The work of Iranian-American artist Eric Parnes, who has gone so far as to trademark the term ‘Neo-Orientalism’, is a case in point, as he explores the concept of Orientalism in the context of the modern era. In addition to pieces such as Neo-Orientalist, which depicts a man of either Arab or North African origin clad in traditional garb stamped throughout with the iconic Louis Vuitton emblem, his upcoming I Dream of Jeannie exhibition will examine the resurgence of Orientalist tendencies among Western artists, especially where the popular American television programme of the same name is concerned.

If there is one thing that can be concluded from the study of the works discussed above, it is that the East still fascinates artists today – particularly those of Eastern descent – and that its allure has ceased to diminish throughout the ages. Whereas the European Orientalists largely fantasised about an exotic, exaggerated, and alien ‘Other’ through an often colonial and prejudiced lens, the Orientalists of today instead look yearningly towards the East from more of a nostalgic and benign perspective, in the hopes of bringing forth from the ashes the glory of a magical age they never knew nor experienced.

While certain schools of thought may criticize the Orientalist tendencies of these artists, one may argue that in a world where the East, far from being celebrated (even under a colonialist gaze) is looked down upon as a land of war, hostility, terrorism, and religious extremism – among other things – such ‘Orientalist’ works refreshingly portray the forgotten glory, splendour, and allure of the land of the rising sun.