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Emirates art lovers welcome Orientalism

Detail of The Siesta, by John Frederick Lewis (1879)
Works like The Siesta (1879) by JF Lewis reflect a western fascination in the East

By Sylvia Smith
Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Given the negative connotations of the term "Orientalist" in this post-colonialist world, one might expect the opening of the first major exhibition of British Orientalist art in the Gulf to be a controversial event.

In fact the 85 oil paintings, sketches and water colours that make up the Lure of the East exhibition, have elicited little else apart from curiosity and delight in the Emirate of Sharjah.

The works, first displayed at Tate Britain, have travelled via Turkey to the Gulf following a roughly similar route to that taken by many British artists who made their way to the Orient in the 19th century.

These early adventurers brought back images that stirred the European imagination showing scenes of a very different way of life; one that lured many of the artists to stay on for prolonged periods.

Hemadi
No Muslim woman would ever have dressed like that. It is just playing up to a fantasy. But to us it is irrelevant
Hemadi, Iraq-born artist

According to Manal Ataya, the director general of Sharjah Museums Department, the exhibition will bridge cultural gaps.

"We know that these paintings can be viewed as controversial," she explains.

"But we see them in a positive light. It is fascinating to see places in the Muslim world that now no longer exist. We are lucky to have such accurate records of the architecture of the time. In many cases they are the only records we have."

Hung in a series of rooms on the ground floor of the Sharjah Art Museum, the works reflect the West's fascination with life in the East in the last two centuries.

They include portraits of TE Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and Lord Byron, both in Arab dress, bustling souqs, people and livestock.

Tailored work

The valuable works of Europe art have attracted large numbers of Emirati nationals and expatriates, including Sharjah-based Iraqi artist Hemadi.

He recognised the quality of the work, but pointed out that only the sketches and water colours were actually completed in the Orient, while the oils were painted on the artists' return to Britain.

Sharjah Museum
The Sharjah exhibition introduces what will be a new genre to many citizens

"At the time there was a new market for art," he says. "The artists often tailored their work to suit the tastes of those who had the new money to commission work. They were less discerning than the earlier patrons of art, the aristocrats."

But he notes the European desire to make the Orient appear more exotic, such as portrayals of bare-breasted slaves or hareem girls.

"No Muslim woman would ever have dressed like that. It is just playing up to a fantasy. But to us it is irrelevant. We don't feel less because of this sort of thing."

Curator Zakryat Matouk agrees, arguing that few Arabs outside a small number of wealthy collectors are even aware of the existence of this genre of paintings.

"They have not dented our self esteem," Ms Matouk says. "We feel flattered that people came all this way to paint us. They say, 'Look, isn't this place wonderful? So different from home'. They certainly don't put us down in our own eyes."

So at a time when Orientalist art is enjoying a critical reappraisal and breaking auction records, it seems that critical and philosophical questions about the cultural appropriateness is mainly confined to the Western mind. The Emaratis of Sharjah scarcely even noticed.



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