Saturday, July 5, 2008

Orientalism Redux

This is Captain Colin Mackenzie painted by James Sant in 1842.
The portrait is a major work in the Lure of the East Exhibition at the Tate Britain. The exhibition re-examines Orientalist painting, mostly concentrating on nineteenth century painters in the countries around the Mediterranean.
But this portrait is of quite a different subject. Captain Colin Mackenzie was leader of the Madras Army that was one part of the massive British defeat in Afghanistan in 1842. Sixteen thousand British and Indian soldiers and followers were massacred during a retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad according to the catalog essay by Christine Ridding.
He was taken prisoner by Muhammad Akbar Khan, the son of the ruler of Afghanistan. who had been deposed by the British forces. Apparently Mackenzie got along with him very well, and was given this magnificent attire as a present.
When he got back to London, he posed for the artist James Sant, and the painting was included at the Royal Academy, to much acclaim. Astonishing arrogance! After a disastrous defeat Mackenzie dons the garment of Afghanistan royalty and looks like a heroic leader!
As suggested by one of the critical commentators included in recordings in the exhibition, imagine today, if a British soldier donned the garb of a Taliban leader for a portrait to be presented to great acclaim in London!

The artist who stands out in the exhibition is John Frederick Lewis whose detailed drawings of the architecture of markets and cityscapes are magnificent.

The catalog includes many excellent essays that re-think Orientalist paintings. It speaks of how these painters when confronted with the realities of domestic privacy and the landscape in places like Jerusalem and Cairo, altered their vocabularies and conventions. They posed themselves and their wives in public and private settings to compensate for the fact that they could not paint women and men together and had no access to harems.

Rana Kabbani 's essay juxtaposes Botero's Abu Ghraib image with Ingres Turkish Bath. He is making the comparison of the British occupation of Egypt inspiring striking paintings, and what paintings we will have from the occupation of Iraq. As he states " might such pictures ( of Abu Ghraib) come to be seen as the Orientalist art of the twenty first century, born, like their predecessors ,of military conquest and colonial expansion and fixed in commercial exploitation? "
That says it all very concisely!

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