Culture | Orientalism on display

New exhibit, same old colonial tradition

Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time” is Canada’s first large exhibit dedicated to Orientalism. Without a doubt, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has spent sizable amounts of time, effort, and money in reuniting the life works of French orientalist painter, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. More doubtful is whether similar resources were employed to ensure that such problematic subject matter would be displayed in a not-so-problematic way.

The sound of Andalusian music guides visitors up the escalators and into Bourgie Hall, where a cringe-worthy scene awaits. Montrealers relax in dim lighting, lounging on pillowed couches underneath tacky Bedouin-esque tents as servers circle around to take drink orders. L’Orchestre arabo-andalou de Fès, subsidized by the Consulate General of the Kingdom of Morocco, are relegated to a shadowy corner to play ‘authentic’ music for the guests’ enjoyment. The scene mirrors Benjamin-Constant’s Interior of a Harem in Morocco, the giant painting hanging upstairs.

There’s no denying that the paintings are visually stunning. But they are also stunningly objectifying.

The walls in the first room of the exhibit are painted a sumptuously dark red, enveloping the paintings on display with more esteem than should be accorded to them. Quotes from Benjamin-Constant appear on the walls: “See what I have to spend in pigments and canvases and for models and studio hire when the picture is too big for my own atelier. And when, after months of work, I have finished one of these big paintings, what does it sell for?” These comments are inscribed with gold lettering, in stunning contrast with the burgundy, a royal treatment for Benjamin-Constant’s commodification of the cultures he painted.

And then there is room after room of paintings collected from places as disparate as Toulouse and Philadelphia, each putting the artist’s commodifying words into practice. There’s no denying that the paintings are visually stunning. But they are also stunningly objectifying. Each exquisite odalisque – a slave or concubine in a harem – lying supine on a bed, tile ledge, or blanketed floor, baring all under the Western male gaze, is an ode to colonial exoticization. Lest the museum fool us into thinking this dehumanizing practice is a thing of the past, we should seriously consider the implications of such a shameless celebration of colonial misogyny in the 21st century.

Orientalism as an art movement is deeply embedded in the racist attitudes of the European empires and their dehumanizing depictions of colonial subjects. Artists were sent by the French elite as emissaries to ‘the Orient’ – i.e., Moorish Spain and North Africa – to document and illustrate how the people of those far-away colonial holdings looked and acted. Others like Benjamin-Constant journeyed east on their own accord to search for romanticized and ‘exotic’ inspiration. The result was a breathtakingly one-dimensional and unashamedly racist portrayal of a culture that, a depiction that, arguably, persists today. There are serious questions to be asked about why such works of art are still considered appropriate for and worthy of display.

As Edward Said writes in his critical work Orientalism, women in the works of orientalists “are usually the creatures of a male power-fantasy. They express unlimited sensuality, they are more or less stupid, and above all they are willing.” The MMFA’s non-committal attempt to briefly address this issue with a few modern pieces by female Moroccan artists Yasmina Bouziane, Lalla Essaydi, and Majida Khattari in the last room of the exhibit is not enough.

Bouziane’s self-portrait Untitled no. 6, alias “The Signature,” which the MMFA claims “uses humour” to subvert colonial photographic practices, is anything but funny. Bouziane’s piece defiantly subverts the orientalist’s voyeuristic gaze by pointing a camera toward the viewer. The fake greenery and shabby backdrop mock the sumptuous surroundings of the female subjects in the next room. This photograph is a direct and powerful response to the underlying assumptions of the entire exhibit, but one relatively small photo is not enough to mitigate the institutional enshrinement of those assumptions.

The main argument for the existence of “Marvels and Mirages” is ‘art for art’s sake;’ but when that art is inherently racist and misogynistic, it does not have a place in modern art institutions.

The inclusion of the contemporary artists seems shallow and tokenizing in the context of the exhibit. The inclusion of all of two of Essaydi’s pieces, among at least twenty from Benjamin-Constant, is not a dialogue between the artists, no matter what the MMFA claims. Granted, the exhibit is centred on the French artist, but the question remains: should it be? Wouldn’t a true dialogue on orientalism look less like a 10:1 ratio and more like an Essaydi for every Benjamin-Constant? Affording the dissenting voice as much physical space as the antiquated point of view would at least present a sincere acknowledgement of the cultural violence committed by Benjamin-Constant’s paintings.

The main argument for the existence of “Marvels and Mirages” is ‘art for art’s sake;’ but when that art is inherently racist and misogynistic, it does not have a place in modern art institutions. Sure, Benjamin-Constant was a masterful painter who utilized a daring pallette and travelled a bit farther than the average Toulousian, but that does not warrant such an outpouring of academic study and funds to showcase it. It was the conscious choice of the MMFA curatorial team to enshrine orientalism in a Canadian institution of art for the first time, with only token regard to the pain and indignation it could cause those who still face the material consequences of the works produced by the likes of Benjamin-Constant.

“Marvels and Mirages” features a style and era of painting many would rather forget. Still, the museum’s attempts to create a “dialogue” concerning the problematic nature of the exhibit should not go unacknowledged – in fact, particularly careful attention should be paid to the hard-hitting contemporary responses to orientalism. However, we must also acknowledge that this attempt at a conversation was not effective. In a city that accounts for 37.2 per cent of the Arab population of Canada, the notable lack of attendance from individuals of Middle Eastern or North African heritage is a stronger comment on the problematic nature of “Marvels and Mirages” than the contemporary responses exhibited in the last room.

 


 
“Marvels and Mirages of Orientalism: From Spain to Morocco, Benjamin-Constant in His Time” is on at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until May 31.


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