The “Inspired by the east, how the Islamic world influenced western art” exhibition to be hosted by the British Museum between October 10 and January 26, aims to offer a contemporary perspective on Orientalism and how the East influenced the West.
With initiatives such as combining ceramic designs by British designer William de Morgan’s with classical Iznik ceramic designs, the exhibition demonstrates how the East influenced the West. It also provides examples as to how contemporary female artists regard the concept of Orientalism.
Gaining popularity in the 19th century and influencing not only painters but also textile, ceramics and jewelry makers, Orientalism gradually fell into disfavor in the 1940’s. Still, it has remained a prominent subject for contemporary female artists who tackle the social gender roles of women.
Four of the contemporary art works included in the exhibition embody a general critique of female artists from North Africa and the Middle East against the concept of Orientalism. One of the works chosen for the exhibition to represent the answer to Orientalism from contemporary women artists “grown in the East” is an animation titled “Harem” by İnci Eviner from 2009.
Using animation, Eviner introduces a harem scene from German Artist Antoine Ignace Melling (1763-1831), who lived in Istanbul for 18 years during the reign of Selim III.
Of course, it is no coincidence İnci Eviner chose to use Melling’s wood engravings amongst thousands of Orientalist pieces. While most 19th century Orientalist artists produced an Eastern imaginary drawing on their own imaginations or travel books, Melling lived in Istanbul and even designed the palace exterior and gardens on orders from Selim III. Therefore, he is considered as the first foreign architect employed by the palace. It is known that Selim III even granted Melling a restoration job of the wooden seaside palace now currently located at the Dolmabahçe Palace site.
Whilst spending his first 10 years under the patronage of the Russian ambassador, Melling designed the garden of Baron de Hübsch’s seafront mansion in Büyükdere, in the form of terraces. Hatice Sultan, the sister of Selim III was in awe of this garden and employed Melling in 1795. When Hatice Sultan wished to arrange the gardens of the Neşetâbâd Palace the Sultan had given her, Melling began to work.
Though he only communicated with Hatice Sultan by mail, Melling also changed the interior decoration of Neşetâbâd Palace. The letters he and Hatice Sultan wrote to each other can be read in the book “Hatice Sultan and Melling Kalfa – Mektuplar” published by the History Foundation Homeland Publishing. An album entitled “Voyage pittoresque de Constantinople et des rives du Bosphore” which contains Melling’s own drawings is an important source on 18th century Istanbul.
An wood etching which portrays the inside of a harem featured in İnci Eviner’s video is completely imaginary. Just like other Orientalists, Melling had never been inside Hatice Sultan’s harem so depicted it from his mind. Eviner critiques the Orientalists’ perception of the harem by inserting images of women in the place of the figures in Melling’s painting. The harem, which is a place for unrestrained promiscuity and passive women in Western eyes, becomes a sort of prison in Eviner’s work. For the women in the video are active subjects that have to repeat the same action over and over again. None of the women in Eviner’s video appear to be content or seem erotic like in Orientalist paintings. They move to bite or stab each other violently or embrace the dead, conveying a general sense of imprisonment.
İnci Eviner’s works are included in respectable collections such as the Deutsche Bank collection, Paris Center Pompidou, Istanbul Modern, Gugenheim and TBA21 Wien.