Archive for February, 2014

Walking into Bristol museum is like walking into a cathedral – there is a reverence, a hushed expectation. When observing the different collections not only was I aware of the historical connections ofImage such items in terms of colonialism, but also the sterile environment in which the objects were kept. Sterile because they were void of their cultural meaning. Take the child’s robe from China that I chose. In one way it is simply an article of clothing. But that’s like saying that a diamond is just a diamond when there is a huge background of slave labour in South Africa, to the cultural implications of ‘diamonds are a girl’s best friend!

Having read Edwards, Godson and Phillips book Sensible Objects:Colonialism,Museums and Material Culture,(2006) I wondered how many of these items were given freely by the people who owned them and how many were taken because we had such power over these countries! But there is a sense of custodianship in the museum. Items are displayed with great care. It is just such a shame we can’t touch and smell the objects. Stoler in her book Race and the Education of Desire states that “the hierarchy, class and caste were created and represented through clothing, buildings and…..around food, odors, sounds, and the bodily contacts in which material objects were, and continue to be, entangled.” Stoler p122 (1995)Image

The child’s robe opposite is from China and while looking at the robe the sense of sight was the only indigenous sensory experience I was allowed – other senses were denied to me. I wanted to touch the expensive silk of a robe that took two years to make. I wanted to smell the fabric, get a ‘feel’ for it. The sensory approach to objects allows us to get closer to them – to find out more about them and understand better the people and the culture from which the object originally came. How would that silk robe feel and importantly, how would it make me feel if I was wearing it (although at 6ft 4 and 14 stone I’m not sure it would be that comfortable).

Behind the glass cabinet, objects lose their potency and their power. Their cultural power is diluted to such an extent that when I look at the robe, I really don’t ‘feel’ much at all. The museum does not allow me to experience much more than this but this course is teaching me that the robe is more than just an object. It is a cultural symbol of power and influence, being the robe of an Emperor’s child.

The contemporary object that I found to make comparisons is a children’s Chinese top from Bristol Market. In this environment I could touch and smell the top as well as gain an insight into its locality. Similar material and style in a very different setting – two similar tops separated by over a hundred years. What was interesting was the two Imagesettings – one was interactive, cultural, social. The other was not. Perhaps museums could learn something from contemporary market places!Image

Oxfam photoI came across this Oxfam campaign and was immediately interested in the photograph, particularly after our lecture on photography. The Oxfam message is clear – overseas aid isn’t working. I did think though, that there could be a white western person standing there, holding food from a food bank, and the message could still be relevant – a campaign waiting to happen!

As for objectivity, every viewer when looking at this photograph will see something different and the viewer, whether consciously aware of it or not, will bring a cultural, social and historical bias that means they will view the photo is a particular way.

In this photograph, gone is the Huxley and Lamprey approach to anthropomorphic photography. You do not feel that they have disregarded the person’s feelings. She is not naked, exposed, docile, scientific (traits of the photographs of aboriginal women from the Victorian scientists Huxley and Lamprey). If anything we can see the French anthropologist Bonaparte’s theories in this photo. In his book ‘Les Habitants de Suriname a Amsterdam’ (1884) his portraits of Indian women showed them in ‘festive costume of their people and from the viewpoint that highlighted her pensive beauty’ (Anne Maxwell, 1999, p44)

The photographer has captured, from my viewpoint, a strong, proud and beautiful woman. There is no trace of the helpless, starving, skeletal pictures that prompted ‘Live Aid’. Here is a woman who has been photographed from Thun’s perspective. He believed that it was a photographer’s duty to ‘use photographs as an accurate record of artefacts and clothing as they appeared in their original contexts, before they were sacrificed to the forces of cultural assimilation’ (Anne Maxwell, 1999, p52)
Thun also believed in natural lighting and made use of the developments in shutter speeds during the late 1800’s. The photograph above also uses light to enhance the natural setting behind the woman.

This photograph, with all the historical bias and cultural undertones, has been taken with western eyes in mind. The woman is dressed in the clothing of her culture. This might be seen as ‘ethnic’ clothing. Her jewellery is tasteful and works with the outfit (I know I sound cynical but western eyes will notice these aspects because of beauty and fashion advertising campaigns in the West)! I think as a result of the photograph (and the very clear written message), we take away with us the feeling that we are ‘on her side’ against greedy western democracies! What is really clever about the photograph is that although the woman holds her hands out (in an almost begging pose), her face and pose is still one of strength and pride. We don’t pity her, we agree with her and there is a feeling that we are ‘in this together’. It is difficult to separate the photograph from the words but it is clear that the photograph has to represent a strength and unapologetic posture that makes us believe that things are unfair and unequal for many of us irrespective of the hemisphere we live in and the colour of our skin.

Through history people have wanted to protect their land. You only have to look at the fences and hedges around modern gardens to realise the importance of this even today. The same feeling of ownership of space was probably just as important in Victorian Britain when a real ‘threat’ to land ownership occurred with the development of the railways. It was fascinating in the lecture to look back at maps of London and York before the onset of the railway system. At first the railways must have been seen as the work of the devil, viewed with suspicion. How could anyone begin to comprehend a machine that would tear through the countryside so much faster than a horse! There is a quote in Jack Simmons’ book that sums up one landowners despair after seeing a railway engine for the first time – “That was a sight to have seen; but one I never care to see again! How much longer shall knowledge be allowed to go on increasing?” Jack Simons – The Victorian Railway (1991).
It’s amazing how some arguments repeat. In 1832, the London and Birmingham railway company were trying to build their railway but surveyors had to map out the route at night for fear of gangs, recruited by landowners, trying to keep the rails off their property. They were desperate to keep their land – as Sir Astley Cooper stated: “You are proposing to cut up our estates in all directions for the purpose of making an unnecessary road,” (Quote taken from BBC News Magazine 2010)
In December last year, newspapers were reporting that the Government were ignoring the impact HS2 (the high speed link from London to Birmingham) would have on landowners who are increasingly losing land. The difference between then and now is that landowners have to wade through a 50,000 page document, prepared by the government which is supposed to put landowners minds at rest!

So will history will repeat itself? The HS2 will probably be built, but the government will have to pay landowners huge amounts of compensation just as the London and Birmingham Company spent a fifth of its entire share capital paying off landowners in 1837. One thing I guarantee will not repeat itself – the timescale! The Victorian line was up and running just six years after the proposal had first been put to Parliament. The HS2 will take approximately 20 years to build and there is little doubt that the railway has and will have a huge impact on our landscape and our lives. Some people simply could not function without the railway network taking them to and from work, not just in this country, but all over the world. But I can’t help thinking that there is some truth in Michael Freeman’s words: “Distance, of course, will no longer figure in the maps, but time will be the substitute. ‘How many miles?’ will be altered into ‘How many minutes?’ (pp 78,1992) We can never go back to narrow horizons and a time when life was always slow. I have less space around me than ever before and yet I can reach more places than ever before – does that mean I can get to more space more quickly or more places with less space? Think I need a railcard to find out!

Orientalism

Posted: February 3, 2014 in Experience & Identity
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ImageI’d never heard of the term ‘orientalism’ until studying on this course. I’d heard of the Orient and I knew that the suffix ‘ism’ was an ideology or philosophy so I could have probably guessed. But what I don’t think I was aware of was the discourse and social negativity surrounding the word and how it still impacts on our views and understanding today.

In his book Formations of Modernity (1992) Stuart Hall, using Edward Said’s book Orientalism (1977) basically says that how we represent the ‘orient’ stops us from really understanding the Far East. We almost have this romantic view (think of the luxurious train the Orient Express) of the Orient. The Far East is seen as mysterious, strange, brutal and we put our European slant on it. It’s the ‘West and the Rest’ kind of thinking. Unless a country (and therefore its culture) is similar to ours then it must be different and difference is to be feared and as a result not understood or trusted. Although I don’t share these beliefs, there are many who do!

Said (1977) refers mainly to the Middle East as the orient and unfortunately over the years the term ‘Middle East’ has come to mean repression, war and terrorism and let’s not forget belly dancing and fanatical religious beliefs (according to some of the media).I think as a result of that, few people bother to look under the surface to understand the true facts about this vast area of the world. If we do (and I mean the British) attempt to find out more, maybe on holiday, then we tend to visit the more ‘acceptable’ face of the Middle East – usually Turkey or Cyprus where there’s always an English pub around the corner! Picture from Tripadvisor – Paphos.

Our views of the Middle East are deeply rooted in what Said describes ‘western imagination’ and the caricatured discourse does not give opportunity to understand the region and its complexities.

During the reign of the British Empire, orientalism was a handy mechanism for justifying and vindicating Britain’s rule over such countries. The clouded views and beliefs allowed our dominance to be more acceptable. This view to some extent remains because as we continue to view the Middle East as barbaric and uncivilised, it allows for military action either directly (the war in Iraq and Afghanistan) or indirectly through supporting alternative political groups who would overthrow the ‘tyrannical’ regime (e.g. Syria). Thinking further, I began to think about how we (the West) are viewed in the Middle East and Asia – and of course there is a term!

Occidentalism is the term used to describe the view of the ‘East’ towards the West. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit in their book – Occidentalism: The West in the Eyes of Its Enemies,(2004) give quite a damning account of the cultural discourse of the West. Although this term originated in the West, it was believed that this stereotype has been used in a reaction to the rise of Western modernism. The West is seen as a “machine civilization,” with imperialism at its heart. It describes:

“ the sinfulness and rootlessness of urban life; the corruption of the human spirit in a materialistic, market-driven society; the loss of organic community;” Buruma and Margalit (2004)

Buruma and Margalit give no answers as to what the West can do to change this discourse and similarly, until both cultures begin to accept, understand and appreciate their differences and diversity, then these cultural stereotypes will continue to drive political and social agendas.

 

Having written this blog, we went down to Mezze Palace, a Lebanese restaurant in Bristol. Great food, great traditional music, great atmosphere and a belly dancer – positive orientalism at its finest!