Despite the discrimination issue of Asian and Middle Eastern people in Western countries, the West once inspired by the East. In the latest exhibition at the British Museum, people are invited to take a look back in history to the time where many Western artists were inspired by the East over the course of five centuries; how their Western techniques translated the Eastern scenery.
It is the first collaboration between the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) and the British Museum, London. The collaboration was first initiated last year by the opening of the Albukhary Foundation Gallery of the Islamic World at the British Museum. The gallery has since then become a prominent attraction at the museum.
Inspired by the East, as the exhibition is titled, focus mainly on 19th century paintings that covers not just the Ottoman Empire — the Muslim power that threatened Europe for more than two centuries — but also the Muslim world of North Africa and Persia.
There is a painting of Sultan Bayezid I by 16th century Venetian artist Veronese, for example, which expressed a fascination from the Venices towards the East.
But in fact, the Ottoman sultans never made it to Venice, so the Western Venetian artists are the ones who had to travel to Constantinople (Istanbul) — the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire which was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and made the Ottomans the most important power in southeastern Europe and the eastern Mediterranean.
The presence of diplomatic corps in Constantinople and a hungry European market for Ottoman goods made the artists bloom. Not only painters, craftsmen were also increasingly recreating Islamic techniques and styles to feed the popular taste for “Oriental-style” interiors. This includes mosaics, tiles, vase, furniture and architecture.
The exhibition also displays a range of Orientalist art (mostly collections from IAMM); an artistic movement or genre that reached its peak during the 19th century when the Western artists were visiting the Middle East and North Africa, and was given a more explicit anti-colonial tone by Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said.
The root of Orientalism lies in early European religious interest in Palestine as they were trading and had diplomatic exchanges with Safavid — the most significant ruling dynasty of Iran who ruled over the gunpowder empires and often considered as the beginning of modern Iranian history — and Ottoman Empire. This had started in the 15th century, when there was an increasing awareness of local traditions and many Western artists were eager to visit these islands.
Orientalist scenes are often expressing tranquility; a contrast to the disruptive industrialisation scenes in Europe and America. The Islamic figures at prayer and the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca were recurring theme — as was the harem in which male European artists took the erotic freedom.
Not restricted to paintings only, Inspired by the East displayed a range of other artworks including metalwork, jewellery, ceramics, photographs, glass and clothing. Some of them are seldom or even never been exhibited for the public viewing.
A Visit from the Prime Minister
“From the earliest contact that Europe had with Islam – long before America had become any sort of world power – there was very little understanding and a lot of curiosity. It was a revelation to me how much interest the West was taking all those centuries ago, and how little they knew of their closest neighbours at the Asian end of the Mediterranean.”
A piece of mind from Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir, as written as the foreword of the exhibition catalogue.
On Sunday before the exhibition is opened for public, Malaysian Prime Minister Tun Mahathir, or popularly known as Dr. M, visited the exhibition.
His visit was accompanied by Foreign Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah; Malaysian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom and Ireland, Datuk Mohamad Sadik Kethergany; and Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (IAMM) director Syed Mohamed Albukhary.
During his visit, he expressed his interest in the East and West’ interaction topic, especially the Western curiosity in Islam.
This exhibition is hoped to help reduce political barriers of East and West, Christianity and Islam. It is a reminder that, besides warfare, the East and the West were also having diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges for centuries. Through these artworks, we can see that there had been an ongoing ‘dialogue’ between the East and the West.
For those of you visiting London from October 10th 2019 to January 26th 2020, don’t miss this genuinely unique exhibition. After the British Museum, the exhibition will travel to IAMM in Kuala Lumpur from June 20th to October 22nd, 2020.