Consuming the Orient

Consuming the Orient
Saturday, January 12, 2008      
ISTANBUL - Turkish Daily News

A fat golden crescent on a dark blue background with the enigmatic
caption "Aimez-vous l'Orient?" (Do you love the Orient?) invites
visitors to the newest exhibition at the Ottoman Bank Museum titled
"Consuming the Orient."

   The exhibition poster's minimalist treatment of the oriental
crescent symbol is in many ways the opposite of what is on display in
the exhibition itself, which shows the Western view of the East as
reflected in popular consumer products of the late 19th and 20th
centuries. Large, colorful advertisement posters, cartoons, product
wrappings and postcards are united in their depiction of "the Orient"
in Western consumer culture.

The exhibition focuses on the Orient as a commodity, an object for
consumption. Consumption is broadly conceived, represented by objects
ranging from tourism artifacts and products claiming to be typically
Oriental – like coffee and carpets – to dreams and imagination,
represented by cartoons and movie posters on display.

The exhibition's curator Edhem Eldem, history professor at Boğaziçi
University, responds to the flexible notion of what forms the
"Orient," which is, after all, a construct of Western culture,
science, art and politics. Eldem has chosen to focus on an
Arabian-Islamic Orient, whose geographical area stretches from Turkey
to the Maghreb (meaning the West, but here the term refers to North
African countries except Egypt) along the Mediterranean basin.

The exhibition's visual backbone is 53 impressive posters from the
Abderrahman Slaoui Foundation of Casablanca. "I know there is a danger
that the posters dominate the other objects in the exhibition," said
Eldem. Considering the artistic innovation and beauty of many of them,
however, this is surely not to the disadvantage of the show.

The objects are arranged around four recurrent, thematic motifs in
the Western view of the East: First, the notion of exoticism, a
tendency to show the Orient as foreign and strange. The cliché of palm
trees and camels in the desert as typically Oriental is encountered
here in its most obvious fashion. Travel guides and tourist handbooks
are also guilty of appealing to exoticism, depicting a world "out
there" in what attempts to be dry, objective language, inviting
tourists to venture into the unknown.

Stereotypes of Oriental people are the focus of the second motif.
The appeal of the unknown Orient was not confined to landscapes and
monumental sights, it also included curiosity about people living in
the East. This ethnographic twist, as Eldem termed it, resulted in
clichés about the idleness of "the Turk" or the backwardness of "the
Arab." Yet Eldem continuously stresses that Orientalism is not as
simple and easily condemnable as it seems. For example, in the French
comic strip "Bécassine chez les Turcs," Germans are ultimately the bad
characters and Ottomans are depicted much more favorably.

The third theme represented in the exhibition is eroticism, a
Western interest in Eastern sexuality that ranges from curiosity to
condemnation. The most classical expression of European erotic
fascination with the Orient is the harem, full of beautiful, idle
women at the ready disposal of their master, an image reproduced in
countless novels, cartoons and movies. From a different perspective,
these fantasies of Oriental polygamy went hand in hand with the
general image of oriental homosexuality.

Historicism is the fourth theme; this construction of history and
the present depicted the East as the background for Western history
through references to biblical sites or Roman remains. In the hands of
historicism's supporters, history became especially useful as a tool
to justify colonial claims. Italy could thus claim "historical" rights
to rule in northern Africa since it saw itself as the modern
continuation of the Roman Empire.

The exhibition's last section, which focuses on Orientalism in
Turkey by Turks themselves, is what makes the exhibition so
extraordinary and controversial. In response to Orientalist attitudes,
demeaning attitudes from the West, the Ottomans of the early 19th
century, in their quest for Westernization, started adopting the very
same notions they had tried to reject and projected them onto the
people who were the "real Orientals" in their eyes: The uneducated
masses, Kurds and especially Arabs. This tendency gained momentum with
the establishment of the Republic, which tried to sever all
connections with an unwanted "Oriental" Ottoman past in order to
finally become part of the admired West.

While projecting Orientalist notions onto others in attempts to
become Western, items of Turkish popular culture tell the story of
what Eldem called "self-Orientalization." The film posters and popular
book covers on display reveal an Ottoman revival in Turkey since the
1980s. An Oriental past is being accepted and actively promoted,
ironically using exactly those clichés the West had produced and
Ottoman elites had once revolted against. Thus the erotic belly dancer
and the wild, untamed Ottoman soldier reappear as main characters in
popular Turkish movies of the late 20th century.

Little text accompanies the artifacts on display. Instead, the
posters and objects speak for themselves, allowing the viewer to come
to his or her own understanding of what it means to consume the East.
Letting the objects speak for themselves also encourages an
appreciation for their artistic value apart from the default
"Orientalist condemnation," which too often becomes just a form of
political correctness. The artists were products of their time and
therefore naturally imbued with Orientalist notions, and Eldem wanted
to show the "innocent side" of Orientalism, which is too often
forgotten. Rather than being active producers of an Orientalist and
thus disfiguring, subduing discourse, the objects of Western consumer
culture were merely reproducing a system already in place. This is
doubtless a controversial point linked to normative notions of guilt
and liability. In how far can we condemn advertisers for reproducing –
often unconsciously – clichés of a mystical, exotic Orient? Should
cartoons with humoristic depictions of "the Oriental" still be
reprinted today?

Eldem is well aware that his exhibition raises these delicate
questions. Yet rather than trying to give standard answers, he aims to
show the manifold, even contradictory sides of Orientalism. And thus
the minimalist golden crescent of the exhibition poster stands exactly
for these aesthetic and naive sides of Orientalism, which lie at the
heart of "Consuming the Orient."

"Consuming the Orient – Doğuyu Tüketmek"

Ottoman Bank Museum, Voyvoda Caddesi 35/37, Karaköy

The exhibition runs through March 2. Open every day from 10:00 a.m.
to 6:00 p.m.




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