There has been some fairly specific criticism of the latest exhibition at the British Museum. “Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art” has irked some reviewers, not with the title’s meagre use of capitalisation, but with the disappointingly small number of harem paintings on display. It seems that British art critics are as eager to savour Oriental flesh as their forebears supposedly were.
As a curator of the exhibition, I was surprised to see no mention of the absence of Eastern Christians to go with the minimal display of hot harem women. The explanation for both no-shows is their invisibility at the time of painting.
When European and North American artists discovered “the Orient” in the 19th century, they sought out every subject that might interest their customers back home. This usually comprised everyday scenes of life in the Middle East and North Africa. The one area that was entirely off-limits was the harem, although lack of access didn’t restrict the imagination.
The opposite was true of the Christian population of the Middle East. Access to them was easy but Western interest almost non-existent. The few Orientalist paintings of Christian life tend to feature churches such as the Nativity and the Holy Sepulchre. Buildings were far more fascinating than people. Scenery could be worthwhile, too, especially when there were biblical connections.
Middle Eastern Christians were little more than part of the sacred furniture, as in an artist’s impression of a new build to give a sense of scale. Their other, uncredited role, was to be used as models for what the Western artists thought the punters really wanted, ie forbidden harem fodder. Women of the Jewish community were used as odalisques for artists who worked in North Africa. For those plying their trade closer to the Holy Land, Christian women often played the role.
This 19th-century prioritisation of religion is at the heart of the joint exhibition between the British Museum and the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia. Why did Westerners in the past find Islam so much more fascinating than Christianity or Judaism? Why are modern audiences so incurious about Muslims unless there’s a terror alert?
I am no more enlightened after putting together the exhibition. If the West was only interested in the Edward Said model of colonial racist imperialism, why were the artists generally so sympathetic to their subjects (especially the Muslim population)? I have yet to see a painting of Islamic prayer or piety that is disparaging. Were these Westerners, on the contrary, closet Muslims in the making? Some of them not only converted but also became Islamic scholars, such as the French artist Alphonse-Étienne Dinet (later known as Nasreddine Dinet).
Even if there were substantial sympathy for Muslims, this wouldn’t explain the lack of curiosity about the local Christians.
Was it because of unedifying reports of fights between the various denominations, in particular at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre? Or could it have been that Eastern Christians were less “exotic” than the Muslims? Perhaps their rituals were too similar to what was known and not always liked at home? This can’t really be correct either, as the clothing, cuisine, language and ways of life of the Eastern Christians were mostly closer to those of their Muslim neighbours than to their Western co-religionists.
Like the Jews, the Arab and Assyrian Christians may have been more open to modelling opportunities, but that was probably because they were often poor. Painters of Jewish scenes had the benefit of buyers in Europe who wanted a view of the Wailing Wall with recognisably Jewish people in the picture.
What is more likely is that Western artists weren’t even aware of the substantial religious minority in their midst. Just as today there is remarkably little awareness of the Christians of Syria, Iraq and Egypt, travelling artists had other priorities. The Eastern Christians weren’t quite familiar enough to be brothers and sisters, nor were they different enough to be a proper “Other” – if that concept ever really existed. If it weren’t for the efforts of charities such as Aid to the Church in Need, we would know as little about the Chaldean Catholics as about the Yazidis. And who remembers them now?
The outcome of the lack of interest in the Christians of the Orient is that we have almost no pictorial record of our co-religionists in the Middle East from the past. Unlike their Muslim neighbours, who are reclaiming their past by buying paintings by 19th-century Western artists, they will have nothing to reclaim. Even worse, their 21st-century visual memories will be formed around photographs of bombed churches and desecrated statues.