Ever since I remember I’ve had a soft spot for orientalism. At first, I just thought the pretty paintings that I came across were magical and dreamy, often with an amazing use of colour and sometimes even sexy. My opinion changed slightly as I learned more about the background of this school. Apparently it was not what the East looked like at all back in the 19th century, but merely what the West wanted it to look like. Art to begin with, but let’s not leave literature, fashion and architecture out.
I learned this by reading Rana Kabbani’s book Imperial fictions: Europe's myths of Orient. This daughter of a former Syrian ambassador in the U.S. What she does in her book, is unravelling the erotic fantasies the West has created about the East. It changed my point of view, as it was belittling and I didn’t like that. However, it didn’t change my weak spot.
Meanwhile, I developed another preference; for Islamic art. It’s so pretty, so delicate, made with such expertise that I can’t help but loving it. When I read an announcement in Islamic Arts Magazine that Sakip Sabanci Museum in Istanbul was holding an exhibition named 1001 Faces of Orientalism during my stay there I was ecstatic: I had to go and see that! Sakip Sabanci is said to be one of the best organized private museums in Istanbul. If nothing else, it certainly is among the best situated. Admitted, it’s not in the centre of town among all the other touristic highlights, but the view on the Bosporus from the grounds is stunning. The drive up there by bus is worth the trip itself!
The introduction to the presentation is through Edward Said, the Palestinian-American literary scholar who first came up back in 1978 with the term Orientalism in order to explain cultural prejudices against the East: “a widespread and coherent cultural discourse that has played a key role in shaping western identity”. He describes the “image of the East as a fanciful counter world trapped in the past and filled with violence and fanaticism as legitimization of colonialism”. Needless to say this caused some debate.. Which brings us to the goal of the exhibit: to take a look at the phenomenon from outside the European context and distinguish its aspects. And not in the least: examination of Istanbul with counterparts. The history of orientalism started with Napoleon: he brought scholars and scientist along during his Egyptian Campaign in order to obtain total power through modern and systematical knowledge, collected in the vast “Description de l’Egypte”. In spite of Napoleon being forced by the Brits under the command of General Nelson to withdraw, a genuine Egypt craze started after his return in France. Sakip Sabanci Museum exhibits a choice of items from a variety of areas: literature, archaeology, painting, architecture, universal exhibitions, photography and fashion. Evidently, the focus is on orientalism and Istanbul. Whomever wants to be educated or reminded: go see this exhibition in this fine museum.