There has recently been a resurgence of insisting on regarding imperial history and colonization as forces for good and positive exchange in response to calls for decolonization. An accompanying phenomenon has been the repackaging of orientalism — the depiction of Muslim-majority cultures as a fundamentally foreign “other,” in contrast to Eurocentric values — through the production, ownership, and presentation of orientalist art. The latter occurs in two distinct yet related forms: the museum art exhibition and formal visual analysis of a single work. However, a persistent emphasis on cross-cultural artistic influence without its colonialist contexts serves to depict orientalism as a benign mode of aesthetics rather than as the ideological justification for European colonialist violence and subjugation.
In conjunction with the Islamic Arts Museum in Malaysia, a recent exhibition at the British Museum, Inspired by the Islamic East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art, purported to display cultural objects that reflect “artistic exchange between East and West.” Despite exhibition plaques quoting Edward Said, the wall text euphemistically referred to Europeans as “increasingly curious and aggressive in their dealings with those outside their borders” and re-frames orientalism as a benign artistic fascination with the “other.” Rather than interrogating European colonialist activities or the use of the amorphous term “East,” the exhibition curators further contented themselves with the idea that the rise of the Safavid and Ottoman empires reflected “more evenly balanced” relations between Europe and Western Asia. The exhibition thus bent over backwards to emphasize that Europeans were also seen as an “other” by those in the “East,” and that Europeans’ own fascinations resulted merely in the designs and artistic inspirations evident in the ceramics, paintings, and illustrations on display. While a geometric design on a vase may not be driven by the same level of power dynamics more evident in other artistic forms, the objects on display are clearly meant to emphasize orientalism as artistic exchange and benign observation of domestic and religious life rather than as the justifying ideology of violent European colonialism and expansion.
Ironically, the exhibition also displayed contemporary female West Asian art as a form of corrective to the passive “Eastern” female subjects of European orientalist art. However, the soft-focus orientalism of the exhibition — where the usually nude female subject of a European harem painting is mainly clothed and the most egregiously orientalist works are nowhere to be seen — conveniently served as a form of Islamic public diplomacy. This diplomacy seeks civilizational validation through Western admiration of Islamic art forms and appreciative depictions of Muslim prayer and Quran study. In turn, European institutions like the British Museum benefit from Islamic institutional partners “from the East” as defenses against claims of orientalism in their exhibitions. Furthermore, such framing neatly sidestepped the co-sponsorship of the exhibition by Standard Chartered Bank — which began its existence as the financial arm of British colonialist expansion — one of many long-standing, neo-imperialist relationships the British Museum maintains.