Figure 1: Jean-Leon Gerome, Bathsheba 1889, oil on canvas
For centuries there has been a reality of the East appearing through Western standards as a kind of theatrical stage. It’s been a place of fantasy, far, far away from our own. One that we long for when we dream of the sands of the Sahara, of riding a camel into the sunset, and of waking in the morning to sip a mint tea cultivated somewhere in some oasis nearby. This Eurocentric vision of the East is not something new. In fact it grew in the early 19th century mainly through Orientalist artwork (figure 1) that was received at the time as a form of documented realism. We know now that its problem was that little consideration was made to the inherent construction of these images, which were used for politically fuelling agendas of the colonising West (i). Knowing what we know now, it’s disheartening to see these kinds of image still pop up today and being used in a similar vein – to separate us from them.
Figure 2: Tim Walker: Guilt Trip Shoot 2014, for W Magazine
Edward Said, who’s book Orientalism, was published in 1978. In it, he wrote:
“The Orient that appears in Orientalism, then, is a system of representations framed by a whole set of forces that brought the Orient into Western learning, Western consciousness, and later, Western empire…. The Orient is the stage on which the whole East is confined. On this stage will appear the figures whose role it is to represent the larger whole from which they emanate. The Orient then seems to be, not an unlimited extension beyond the familiar European world, but rather a closed field, a theatrical stage affixed to Europe.”(ii)
In fashion this theatrical vision of the East is a co-construction, first, in the wests collective imagination, and second, in the market created by this imagination that fashion and lifestyle brand pander to in order to sell clothes and the idea of an “exotic” luxury. In 2014 W magazine sent Tim Walker and supermodel Edie Campbell to Burma, where they shot an editorial that juxtaposed Campbell (a European model) against the a background of the nation’s “exotic” landmarks and citizens. It’s poorly conceived and as ignorantly shallow as one would expect.
Here is an extact from the W magazine story fittingly titled “Gilt Trip,”
“What they found was a land so visually and philosophically far-out—at least from their Western perspective—that it conjured the trippy heroine of this story: Prudence Farrow, Mia’s “rather uptight and impossibly perfect Buddhist sister” as Walker describes her, who got lost in deep meditation while in India, thus inspiring the Beatles song “Dear Prudence.” Along her mystical tour of the country, Prudence, as played by Campbell, encounters Madame Thair, the wealthy owner of an antiques store in Yangon; members of the Kayan tribe, who are known for their neck-elongating jewelry; and a holy temple shaped like Humpty Dumpty.” (iii)
Figure 3: Tim Walker: Guilt Trip Shoot 2014, for W Magazine
In the shoot Campbell dresses up as a Buddhist monk (figure 3), in the fashion equivalent traditional monk robes. In one of my previous post I talked about how it’s not okay to wear another person’s culture as a costume because cultural appropriation occurs across matrixes of power. When you put on a culture that’s not understood or accepted in the mainstream as a costume, you demean and devalue it and mark it as “Other”.
In other images Campbell poses with the “exotic” people of Burma. Despite the fact that women in these images are not relegated entirely to the background, their function is to contrast our “civilized” world of fashion and photo shoots against the more “primitive,” whimsical land of Burma. And Campbell’s Western-ness/whiteness is still centralized — in the photo shown below, the Kayan tribeswomen are literally clapping for her. (figure 4.)
Curiosity in diversity is actually a positive thing. When it is sincere it can offer an intellectual spark for progressive thought. However it is important to consider that curiosity is often imbued with a group of pre-existing assumptions regarding what an area ought to seem like that are often allotted by virtue of our colouring, passport, language, sex, and place of origin. If we are going to see progress, images like these – where we become the privileged visitor, and ‘they’, the visited – need to be considered for their harmful contribution to negative stereotypes.
i.Nochlin, L, 1989. “The Imaginary Orient”. The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society. New York: Harper & Row.
ii. Said, E. 1978. Orientalism. Pantheon Books: New York