Archaeology and Ancient Religions Islamic History

The British Museum : Inspired by the East exhibition – a timely reminder of cultural exchange between East and West

Members from The Review of Religions recently received a guided tour of the British Museum’s latest exhibition entitled ‘Inspired by the East: how the Islamic world influenced western art’. Amid Brexit, Muslim travel bans in the US and a gradual shift towards isolationist politics, this exhibition is a timely reminder of the prolonged cultural exchange between East and West. 

Rizwan Safir, Editor of the Archaeology section for the Review of Religions, met with the exhibition co-curators Julia Tugwell and Olivia Threlkeld to find out more. 

Bringing together some of the finest works of orientalist art, the British Museum’s latest exhibition seeks to highlight the prolonged period of interaction and exchange between the so called ‘West’ and ‘East’. Some of the works on display are truly stunning, but the first piece on entry is arguably the star of the show.

A large portrait oil-canvas painting of a Muslim man in prayer greets visitors. The man, presumably an Imam or religious figure, stands in deep reflection, looking up towards his Creator with an expression of gratitude, humility and fervour. 

Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847–1928), The Prayer. Oil on canvas, 1877. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

The artist responsible for this magnificent piece was Frederick Arthur Bridgman, a 19thcentury orientalist painter born in Alabama, but intrigued by Algeria. Frederick travelled across North Africa and Egypt in the late 19thcentury inspired by the vivid cultural and artistic traditions of the region, whilst appreciating the sanctity of Islam to its people. He clearly affords great respect to the subject of the painting and his surroundings, such as sensitively stacking his shoes so that the soles are touching each other, to avoid dirtying the prayer mat below. 

A clash of civilisations

But whilst certain nuances are considered, many aspects of the scene are immediately peculiar to a Muslim audience. From his atypical prayer stance to the unclear prayer venue – is this a mosque? – to the shamanistic individual praying in an unfamiliar fashion behind him. It is clear the painter had limited, if any, access to the more intimate areas of society such as the mosque. As Olivia Threlkeld, co-curator of the exhibition, points out “He would have perhaps had access to the mosque-space but not in this position. He would have been working from sketches and photographs”.

This, in essence, represents the conflict of orientalist art. Fuelled by an intrigue of the orient – loosely defined as North Africa, the Middle East and India – artists, writers, travellers and the like from the 16thto early 20thcenturies would create spectacular scenes that excited European and American audiences. The more spectacular, the greater the interest. It is in this period that ‘Aladdin’, ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves’ and ‘Sinbad the Sailor’ were born. 

Albert Robida (1848-1926) [Public domain]

These depictions went on to become embedded within Western perceptions of the orient, one with vagabond snake charmers, chaotic bazaars, extravagant rulers and mysterious harems. They portray a fantastical, romanticised but altogether uncivilised place. This narrative was at the forefront of European colonial expansion, where western powers justified ruling vast territories by portraying it as a duty. The West had toconquer the East to civilise and enlighten its people. 

Incidentally, the Roman Empire 2000 years earlier used the same language when conquering foreign lands, claiming it was part of their duty to civilise barbarians outside of the Roman Empire. The very word ‘barbarian’ was used by the Roman Empire to describe any foreigner that lacked Greek or Roman traditions, referring to the unfamiliar sounds of their language (“bar bar bar”). 

All rolled together, such depictions and descriptions were part of a framework which forged a clear divide between the orient and the occident (the area of Europe and the USA). It exaggerated a sense of ‘us versus them’, and it laid the moral foundations for a period of unprecedented colonial expansion and slavery.  

Traditional orientalism – alive today?

The most vocal critic of the orientalist agenda was Edward Said, a Palestinian-American literary professor whose 1978 book ‘Orientalism’ had a profound effect on reassessing colonial history. Said argued centuries of literature and artistic depictions of the orient created visions of a decaying mythic ‘East’ inhabited by a disorderly people.

In many respects, this concept continues into the current day and has extended beyond the traditional region of the orient. Immigrants arriving from around the world apparently fail to assimilate and are part of a wider ‘clash of civilisations’. They arrive from regions which are described as ‘worlds apart’. Similarly, Latin America is portrayed as a land of drug lords and dictators. Africa consists of corrupt despots and starving victims. The Middle East houses terrorists, misogynists and cruel monarchies. In each scenario, the overarching message remains the same; one side is civilised and enlightened, the other remains lagging behind. 

A wave of change

Slowly, however, a gradual shift has started to take place. Through the influence of literary thinkers such as Said, a consensus has begun to confront the preconceptions of the lands of the orient and to recognise their contributions to world history. An increasing portfolio of content – from documentaries, books, museums and exhibitions – has shifted the narrative towards giving these areas a voice to speak from their perspective. 

The Review of Religions is a pertinent example of the sustained efforts to readdress misconceptions about the orient and its history. For over 100 years, it has targeted a western audience with the specific intent to recognise the legacy of Islam and its contributions to the world. 

From its first edition in 1902, thousands of articles have been published proselytising true depictions of Islamic history. Incidentally in October 1969 – almost a decade before Said presented his thesis on orientalism – the third Caliph of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community (Hadhrat Mirza Nasir Ahmadrh) published in the Review of Religions stating:

“Many orientalists express erroneous views about Islam in their research articles. Their findings fit in with temporal standards but this criteria sometime turns out to be ridiculous.”(The Review of Religions, October, 1969)

Similarly in 1992 writing in The Review of Religions, Mualana Sheikh Mubarak Ahmad noted:

“The orientalists and other Western scholars often misrepresent the life and work of the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Their errors must be pointed out and refuted by facts.” (The Review of Religions, November, 1992) 

This growing pushback against a contrived presentation of oriental history has begun to bear fruit. Over the past decade, documentaries on the Golden Age of Islam, books on Islam’s influence on western history, articles on the contribution of Arabia to the world and the like have emerged in the mainstream. 

The British Museum – reversing the narrative?

Respectful representations of the orient. Ludwig Deutsch (1855–1935) In the Madrasa. Oil on panel, 1890. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

The British Museum is an example of another institution that has addressed this head on. Fraught with its own colonial baggage (the majority of its collection was amassed at the height of British Empire), it has a reputation of upholding a whitewashed view of British imperial history. In recent years, this has shifted with an increasing array of exhibitions focusing on the Medieval Orient and the Islamic world. 

Last year, the British Museum opened two new state-of-the-art galleries on the Islamic World, encompassing lands from West Africa to southeast Asia. As a follow up, this exhibition was born which seeks to take a deeper look at cultural and material exchange throughout the 15th to early 20th centuries. It moves away from the overly romanticised and brings together magnificent works which genuinely appreciated the orient and its contributions to knowledge.

Beyond oil paintings, it presents ceramics, metalwork, photography, maps, architecture, theatre and even music as aspects of culture which permeated into the west. It successfully unites a body of works where the authors appreciated the world outside of their own, as opposed to overly dramatising their subjects to portray an unruly land. Instead, they understood the high level of sophistication in craftsmanship and intellectual enquiry that existed in the orient. 

Left: Bottle in the Persian (late Safavid) style, glazed and lustre-painted ceramic, France, late 1800s. © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia.

Centre: Philippe-Joseph Brocard, Gilt and enamelled glass mosque lamp, c. 1877. France © Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia

Right: Glazed and gilded pottery, Iznik (Turkey), 1600–25. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Examples are on display of decorative arts that were mimicked to appear of an eastern style. Ceramics of a turquoise glaze were made in Europe but acquired the name Persianware, referencing the distinct hue of Persian material culture. Glass mosque lamps were also replicated, with western artisans creating looping lines to appear as Arabic, but in actuality were unreadable and meant nothing. Similarly, Iznik pottery from the Ottoman Empire with its swirling floral motifs were considered the height of pottery production and routinely copied. 

The obsession with sleazy, suggestive and lewd representations of life are cast aside in this exhibition which emphasises a mutual fascination between the orient and the occident. Paintings on display are undeniably romanticised, but are a distant image from the wild, untamed portrayals that dominated stereotypes of the orient up until the early 20th century. This is a rare opportunity to see 140 pieces of work together that celebrate a prolonged conversation between east and west, a conversation which requires renewed emphasis in the current day. 

The ‘Inspired by the East’ exhibition runs until 26 January at the British Museum. Find out more here:

About the Author: Rizwan Safir, Editor of the Archeology Section of The Review of Religions, is a Senior Research Consultant specialising in archaeology and museums, with over 10 years experience in the Middle East. He has worked for the British Museum, Humboldt University Berlin, Copenhagen University and other such institutions on excavations and heritage conservation projects in the Middle East region; including Egypt, Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Oman, the UAE and Qatar. Rizwan currently works for Barker Langham on the development of new museums and exhibitions in the Gulf region.

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