Sumaya Kassim writes about the ingrained orientalist attitudes and tropes which reinforce exhibitions like the British Museum’s Inspired by the East, often at the expense of the experiences, creativity and cultural history of Middle Eastern Muslims.
None of the Arab countries I know has proper state archives, public record offices or official libraries any more than any of them has decent control over their monuments or antiquities, the history of their cities or individual works of architecture – mosques, palaces, schools. What I have is a sense of a sprawling, teeming history off the page, out of sight and hearing, beyond reach, largely unrecoverable. Our history is mostly written by foreigners – visiting scholars, intelligence agents – while we rely on personal and disorganised collective memory, gossip almost, and the embrace of a family or knowable community to carry us forward in time.
Edward Said, ‘In Memory of Tahia’
Any document of civilization is also a document of barbarism says the palace, burning.…/There are no good kings, only burning palaces.
Our experiences of exhibitions are deeply personal and informed by the intersection of our oppressions, our tastes and, crucially, the way others interact with us. Who I am, this body, the way I present, means that I am often a subject of inquiry at exhibitions. The furtive glances of exhibition goers are impossible to interpret with complete accuracy. And yet I have some idea of what they are thinking. Rather like the paintings of women with mirrors that John Berger famously analysed, people of colour, particularly those who present as practicing Muslims, present exhibition visitors with an opportunity for a kind of colonial pathos. What does the hijabi woman think as she looks at these objects that represent our ongoing historical relationship? The hijab signals to the onlooker that here is a native that can be looked at anthropologically. (This is such a common experience that poet Hafsah Aneela Bashir wrote an important piece exploring the phenomena).
Although, I assure you as I am watched, I watch in return. And it is not with fascination.
Visiting The British Museum’s Inspired by the East: How the Islamic world influenced Western art I was examined fairly regularly. I recognise that such curiosity is not only understandable, but inevitable. White people are taught to be curious, to be fascinated. Of course, exhibitions reify the visual – facilitating examination, interpretation and objectification. This is tied both to the museum and the exhibition’s racist, colonial roots. It cultivates a way of looking. But fascination is insidious. White people continue to view Muslims (as well as most migrants and their descendants) as inalienably foreign to Britain. We are regarded through an orientalist lens which insists that we are irredeemably primitive, submissive, reactive, languid, devoid of an interior life. We remain caricatures, side characters, to the complex lives of the protagonists, white people. In an exhibition, one can indulge in the fantasy of occupying the superior position of the white man studying the natives, an anthropological gaze which categorizes and neuters; a gaze which cuts away at the notion that we contain multitudes, that we have the right to determine our own fates.
Orientalism is so ingrained, so powerful, and still circulating, it is difficult for exhibitions not to reproduce Orientalist tropes.
One of the central questions I ask of exhibitions is how far they go in disrupting the fantasy. As curators and storytellers what methods do we use to move audiences beyond fascination? And where do we want to take them? In this regard, Inspired by the East has some features to recommend it. It begins with a quote from Edward Said’s ground-breaking Orientalism (1978). Said describes the Orient as ‘the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilisations and languages, its cultural contestant, and one of the most recurring images of the Other’. The clear signposting of the constructedness of Orientalism continues throughout, with detailed references on how the images and typologies artists produced were more fantasy than reality. Orientalist paintings were often constructed from props from a variety of cultures and locations. Some artists never visited the Middle East. There are historical examples of ‘returning the gaze’, showing that there was a ‘mutual fascination’ (see Jonathan Jones’ review) between European travellers, artists, administrators, and the people they considered Oriental. It was also gratifying to see the word ‘loot’ mentioned, though nowhere is the British Museum implicated in any meaningful way.
My main contention is that to replace or confront the current script with ‘Orientalism isn’t real’ is too subtle a point. Orientalism is so ingrained, so powerful, and still circulating, it is difficult for exhibitions not to reproduce Orientalist tropes. With a looted collection and images that are mostly imagined, bold curatorial decisions are required and nothing less. Otherwise you run the risk of delivering the typical box of Turkish delights Orientalist exhibition that ostensibly celebrates ‘dialogue’ or ‘exchange’, without fully engaging with the way European states carved the Middle East between themselves for profit and the role imperial powers played in exacerbating and creating sectarian violence. Museums continue to validate reading the Orient anthropologically. Curators must draw attention to this and work to undermine our tendency to objectify people through objects.
The trouble is the ‘hook’ is the fantasy. The fantasy is what gets tourists and British Museum members through the door. And so a delicate balancing act is at work, between the need to feed the fantasy – dimly lit rooms, Arabesque music, the repeating script of Orientalism, a kaleidoscopic collective colonial daydream, replete with (literally) impossibly sensuous women in harems – and challenging deeply held beliefs. After all, Islam is still seen as a menacing spectre haunting the West. The exhibition centres the Orientalist artists as the protagonists of the tale; it also centres a white audience. At the end is a room exploring Osman Hamdi Bey’s work and then a dark corridor with important works by Inci Eviner, Lalla Essaydi, and Raeda Saadeh. These in particular were given little room to breathe, though all are brilliant, resisting re-articulations of Orientalist imagery.
There are other ways to undercut the repeating script through the interpretation, exhibition design, but also a commitment to outreach. By outreach I mean to two things. First, for the British Museum to recognise that as a national institution it has an obligation to reach out to communities who are othered by exhibitions and engage with Islam as a lived and living tradition. It’s strange that an exhibition would include Leighton House and not Woking Mosque for instance. This shows me, again, that the protagonists are those who are fascinated by Islamic art rather than those meaningfully living and engaging with Islamic art and practice. Second, engaging with and including Islamic art consultants and artists living in the UK; it would make sense to have had contemporary works throughout that engage with the collection. One would never know that there are many Islamic artists working across the UK, many of whom using their practice to confront colonial legacies.
I am standing before burning palaces. I am standing in what I am told is the centre of civilisation, and yet all I see are flames. For many of us, the past few decades have been nightmarish. In the past few weeks alone, Muslims have been rendered stateless, put into concentration camps, the most powerful man in the world threatened to bomb Iranian cultural sites, air strikes on Mogadishu, Yemen, Iraq… Enclosed in this intricate, delicate space one might not think of the fire that has been burning and burning for centuries. And I, seeing this, recognise that Britishness is characterised only by its harrowing disconnect from reality. Nowhere is this more profoundly experienced than in the British Museum.
What would an exhibition look like if it took seriously the desire for self-determination? What would an exhibition look like if it accepted our agency and the political consequences of that agency? What would happen if an exhibition showed how the British purposefully and brutally extinguished the hopes of their colonial subjects? What would it have looked like for a public space, like a national museum, to have cared and provided space for us?
I am not fascinated by my dehumanisation. I am not fascinated by the psychological and military technologies that uphold colonialist and imperialist endeavours. I am sickened by it.
Put simply, the exhibition doesn’t go far enough. Inspired by the East would have you believe that there was a mutual fascination; I reject this. I cannot connect with this story. I am not fascinated by my dehumanisation. I am not fascinated by the psychological and military technologies that uphold colonialist and imperialist endeavours. I am sickened by it. Again and again, I contend with the fact that this exhibition isn’t for me. To know there was a time when Muslims, Arabs, Asians, and so on, were viewed differently is a comfort for white exhibition goers, but not for me. I feel an urgency, a real fear, for myself and the communities I am connected to. My heart is broken. My countries are broken. The British Museum will not be the institution to heal these wounds.
We, the Orientalists
I continuously return to the challenge of communicating urgency to slow moving institutions, in part because their words are rarely followed with meaningful action. If we look at the interventions of Art Not Oil and Drop BP in The British Museum, we see how intractable institutions can be. (Last year novelist Ahdaf Soueif stepped down from her position as trustee because of the museum’s ‘immovability’.) We also see where their priorities truly lie. We might ask how an institution can claim to be a lead in preserving collections when they actively accept money from BP, an organisation committed to destroying the environment, human culture, and human beings. The British Museum has shown a commitment to its own survival as a business, but not to the survival of the people it claims to represent. This is a public institution. It does not need oil money. In the unfolding story of our world, how are we to measure Islam’s influence on western art if it is platformed by such an institution? Surely such an exhibition is undercut not only by The British Museum’s historical theft, but by its obsessive desire to continue stealing valuable resources from us, such as our time, by closing its ears and pretending that we do not exist.
For change to occur it is imperative that we centre the people who understand what is at stake (spoiler: usually not white curators). In her soaring speech at the organised protests at the museum last year, Iraqi-American Yasmin Younis spoke of her search for a history outside her home and yet all she found was ‘violence, war, and casualty’. She echoes the dichotomy Said writes of (see epigraph): the power of institutional spaces and, in contrast, the beating heart of the family home which ‘carries us forward’ in time, unrecoverable and, in many ways, untranslatable to others.
And yet we must also place tension on this binary. Many of us cannot turn to our family for answers, to carry us forward. Our families and communities have internalised orientalist stereotypes and the white gaze, reproducing stereotypes as ways to control members of our communities in the name of maintaining an apparently unchanging culture. Those most vulnerable, such as women and children, are usually the ones targeted. Iraqi writer Zeena Yasin (who was also at the protests) writes about this as a result of the complex ways trauma manifests between generations:
‘It never made sense to me that it was simply a “conflicting cultures” issue. This paradigm was in itself a source of conflict for me, centring around whiteness rather than the real issue at hand. When I was younger, I never felt I could speak out about what I was facing at home. I was afraid that I would be legitimising the orientalist stereotypes that were used as weapons against me by white people. On the other hand, those from my Iraqi community would defend these social issues that plague us. They saw these traumatic experiences simply as “cultural customs” and sources of our identity. Anyone who would disagree was simply “Westernised”.’
The internalisation of oppressive power structures, of whiteness, racism, Orientalist stereotypes, is a conversation that will never be held in The British Museum. We cannot expect this degree of complexity and nuance, nor can we expect a desire to heal communities from an institution whose existence symbolises the theft of objects but also, above all, the theft of our humanity. Indeed, they continue to steal through their silence and their sponsorships. There is no or very little space for us to come together and learn about who we are outside the white gaze, but also for wider communities to provide interpretation, knowledge and context from an angle of care and healing. It is not only historical facts that we need, but space to mourn, to meditate, to collectivise.
To look at one another as people, to attempt to look beyond the categories imposed upon each other by the violence of the Orientalist gaze, is an act of excavation, an act of love.
Central to this learning how we can look at each other, how we can hear one another, with a heart that is open. Our hearts are historical documents just as much as any archive. To look at one another as people, to attempt to look beyond the categories imposed upon each other by the violence of the Orientalist gaze, is an act of excavation, an act of love. This work is happening. You don’t have to look far to see the impact of the ongoing global and local conversations on decolonising heritage. As I walked around Bloomsbury, I saw evidence of Bricks + Mortals‘ vital work on the legacy of eugenics in UCL. I also visited the Grant Museum of Zoology’s thoughtful and thought-provoking exhibition Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire. All around are signs of activism and artistry that trouble the waters of British national identity, and truly engages with Britain’s racist past.
The contrast between the thrumming activity surrounding The British Museum and its dark interiors could not be more stark. We can determine that the difficulty of cracking open The British Museum – bringing missing persons, missing stories, missing objects to the light – represents the challenges of examining Britain’s colonial legacies and, beyond this, learning and healing from them collectively. If we consider how hopeless The British Museum is, even as it tries, we can begin to understand the scope of the work we have ahead of us in undermining structural racism, capitalist exploitation, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and all oppressive regimes. We must rely on the incredible individuals and collectives organising temporary tours and DIY exhibitions to have these conversations. My hope lies with smaller museums and pop-up exhibitions, the genuine curators, artists and activists who have been leading the way in the heritage sector, passionate about how we connect as people to fight against oppression and for our liberation. My hope lies with the people.
Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire will be shown at the Grant Museum of Zoology until 7 March 2020, (opening hours: 1pm – 5pm, Monday – Saturday), Free entry to all.
Feature image: Les Femmes du Maroc: Grandes Odalisques 2 by Lalla Essaydi.
About Sumaya Kassim
Sumaya Kassim is a writer and independent researcher. She was a co-curator for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition ‘Birmingham and the British Empire: The Past is Now’ (2017-18), an exhibition which sought to decolonise the museum’s colonial legacies. Her article chronicling the curation process, ‘The Museums Will Not Be Decolonised’ (Media Diversified, 2017) was shared widely in the sector. Her archival/textual interventions have been exhibited internationally. She has given talks across the UK at various universities and art galleries as well as museums such as the V&A, Wellcome Collection and The British Library. Her interests include but are not limited to memory, secularism, race, alternative institutions/DIY methods of dissemination, the body and the environment. She was a 2019 Research Fellow at the Research Centre for Material Cultures in Leiden. She has an essay forthcoming in the collection Cut From The Same Cloth (Unbound, 2019). She is currently working on a set of essays and a novel. For commissions or for further information, contact Sumaya on Twitter @SFkassim