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Entering the dimly lit space of Inspired by the East: How the Islamic World Influenced Western Art from the British Museum’s milk-white Great Court is a jarring experience. According to the Guardian, the museum’s newest exhibition aims to highlight "the mutual fascination and inspiration of the two worlds” it explores, East and West, which have been in dialogue since the fifteenth century. Whether it actually achieves that or not is a different matter.

The British Museum’s own role in our colonial story is hardly problematised here

Even before one considers the social and historical myopia on show here, the exhibition suffers from periodisation, an issue not made sufficiently explicit in the show’s titling. In this chronology, which starts in the 15th century, a wealth of rich source material is missing. The most significant omission is arguably the show’s ignorance of Venice. Once described as early modern Europe’s “gateway to the East”, Venice’s geographical situation as a trading nexus and its cross-fertilisation with non-Western architectural design render it ideal terrain for consideration. Take, for example, the ogival arches of the façade of St. Mark’s Basilica, and the Fondaco dei Tedeschi, a residence welcoming travelling merchants which cites its name directly from the Arabic funduq. If ever there were a complex and mutually enriching cross-continental engagement, it was here. Instead, we are presented with poor Western imitations of 17th-century Ottoman Iznik plates, illustrating less a benign interplay of cultures than an uncomfortable fetishisation of otherness.

Passages of this show, particularly its language, are almost laughable given the ongoing Western incursion in the East (Trump’s annexation of Syrian oilfields being only the most recent, cynical, and illegal exemplar). The British Museum’s own role in our colonial story is hardly problematised here. Divided into chapters that include the headings “Reorient” and “Disorient”, glittery gold placards caption the works while orientalist sounds diffuse. The outcome is a dangerous (and embarrassingly kitsch) aestheticisation of an entirely lopsided cultural exchange. The only thing missing is incense.

An early reference to the work of Edward Said has been included at best cursorily, at worst ignorantly. Said’s assertion of a pervasive Western tradition (both academic and artistic) of prejudiced outsider-interpretations of the Eastern world is based fundamentally on historical analysis, a feature that is virtually absent in Inspired by the East. Historical fact is wilfully obscured. An 1854 portrait by William Brockedon of the Venetian Giovanni Battista Belzoni – a circus strongman-turned-plunderer par excellence – is presented as an irreproachable archaeologist and explorer bedecked in Eastern garb. Mention is made of his removal of the colossal bust of Rameses II, shipped directly to the British Museum in 1815, but there is no acknowledgement of how this portrait of proactive automythology is a direct product of colonial plunder and violence.

The suggestion that we can peacefully absorb Orientalism into the canon of art history is a textbook act of neo-colonialism

Co-curator Olivia Threlkeld’s proposition that "Orientalism was one of the defining elements of the 19th and 20th centuries, comparable to other ‘isms’ like Surrealism and Impressionism” highlights the misuse of Said’s theory in this exhibition. The suggestion that we can peacefully absorb Orientalism into the canon of art history, detaching it from its historical and contemporary context, is a textbook act of neo-colonialism.

However, a lack of critical analysis (or even recognition) of history is not the only omission here. The harem, a defining leitmotif of Orientalism, is practically disregarded. This may be partly explained by the museum’s collaboration with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia (where the exhibition will be shown in June of next year); unbounded imagery of Sapphic women in various states of undress is probably inappropriate given the context. Some suitable images are included: the drawing Algerian Interior (detail) by Delacroix offers a superficial glance into a 19th-century French obsession with the ‘feminine exotic’. Yet the heavy curatorial editing in this area leaves a bitter aftertaste.

The last section introduces four contemporary female Muslim artists. This feels like an afterthought, reinforcing the stereotype of a passive East as well as gender’s marginalisation in this show. Harem, the 2009 film by Turkish visual artist Inci Eviner, is based on the 19th-century engravings of German artist Antoine Ignace Melling and successfully portrays an alternative image of women as active subjects. Unfortunately, in the context of the rest of this show, its inclusion feels more like an exploitation that proves the rule.

The museum’s responses to calls for repatriation demonstrate a continuity with its past imperial role

Context is crucial to exhibitions like these. Emily Duthie’s article, “The British Museum: An Imperial Museum in a Post-Imperial World”, is a reminder of the museum’s uneasy position as a custodian of world heritage. Despite its claims of redefinition, Duthie illustrates how the museum’s responses to calls for repatriation demonstrate a continuity with its past imperial role. Earlier this year, Geoffrey Robertson QC, a leading human rights lawyer, described the British Museum as the ‘world’s largest receiver of stolen goods’.


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More sinister is its sponsorship. Standard Chartered, a British multinational banking and financial services company, has its own roots in colonial history. Before it merged with the South African Standard Bank in 1969, it was Chartered Bank which was founded in 1853. Influential in the growth of colonial trade through the East of Suez, its initial specialism was trading in opium and cotton. Given the history of the British in China, and the context of two Opium Wars, it is inconceivable that a bank born from said profits would invest in an unwanted critique of this period.

At the very least, Inspired by the East presents ignorance of history and current affairs. One senses that the curators believe they have made something successfully provocative. In reality, the message given is the tired trope of #NotAllColonialists – more of the same imperialistic whitewashing. This is a shame, as there was room here for productive debate. Unfortunately, instead of refashioning itself as a crucible of cultural self-criticism, the museum has allowed its curators to perpetuate pastiche and power.

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