Not just home to a profusion of cakes, ChinaHouse is currently also home to a profusion of antiques. Nestled above the café is an Aladdin’s cave of relics crammed into the small corridors of the traditional townhouse. Here there are 1000+ antiques, to be exact. This is the exhibition, The Lure of the Orient, which is on now until September 5th.
The ‘Orient’, and its corollary term ‘Orientalism’, is the 19th century fascination, often held by those in the West, with faraway eastern culture. It regarded the Orient as a timeless, vague, colourful and medieval location; while these were often dreamlike and idealised images, they were often condescending and fetishising, used as a tool to both obscure and justify imperialistic domination and violence.
The variety of objects exhibited is truly fascinating. While there are prints of the most well-known Orientalist painters such as Jean-Léon Gérôme and Edwin Lord Weeks, there are also Ottoman politically-satirical cartoons, books, sculptures, clothing, as well as other objects from little jade elephants to colourful framed rugs. To study every object there would be to spend hours in the exhibition. You won’t know where to place your eye.
Immediately as you enter the exhibition, the wall has been made a mosaic of framed original press photographs taken from newspapers dating from the 1920s to 1980. These images span from the beautiful architectural images of Tinerhir, to the shockingly blaze racism manifested in an image of Sir General Archibald Wavell, British Commander for India and Burma, being served breakfast by his Egyptian servant. These images are not only fascinating for their insight into Orientalist outlooks, but this kind of material is rarely archived digitally, so the chance to study them here is amazing.
In amongst this plethora of objects, there are a number of informational boards that explore a wide expanse of subjects concerning the Orient, such as Francis Frith’s photographs of Egypt to the Orientalist costumes in Parisian opera. This exhibition does a fantastic job of giving viewers an idea of the perverseness of Orientalist ideals in ‘western’ culture, manifesting itself in almost all corners of culture. Something I found particularly interesting was the chance to learn about ‘Salomania’, the orientalist re-reading of the biblical story of Salome, who was both a seductress and agent in the beheading of John the Baptist. This was a subject particularly popular in the 19th and 20th centuries, with the likes of Oscar Wilde writing their own versions. A typical femme-fatale figure, this cultural phenomenon surrounding Salome has overtones of both Orientalism and misogyny, so commonly intertwined.
Despite the plentiful information, I do wish that there was more details about the specific objects themselves. The way the objects are crammed together, with vague – if any – labels about the actual objects featured, the exhibition feels somewhat like an antique shop. And really, this is not far from the truth; self-financed and organised by The Gilded Lion KL antiques company, most of the objects featured are for sale.
The mass of objects featured, I understand, would mean to feature information on each one would demand a great deal of work on part of both exhibition organisers and visitors alike. However, as it stands now, the vaguely-defined objects are almost made complicit in the vague and romantic — and undeniably imperialist — vision of the Orient. Similarly problematic is the poster of the exhibition that features a decontextualised quotation from the diaries of Orientalist writer William S. Burroughs, in which he writes: “I go to bed with an Arab in European clothes … I’ve been to bed with 3 Arabs since arrival, but I wonder if it isn’t the same character in different clothes and every time better behaved, cheaper, more respectful…”. This kind of narrative is clearly hugely insensitive to Arab culture, and it is questionable why the exhibition would use such a quotation in such an undiscerning way. The exhibition, then, arguably falls short of deconstructing the ‘lure of the Orient’ but instead explores and perpetuates it.
Where? – upstairs at ChinaHouse, 153 Beach Street, 10am until 10pm daily
How much? – free, unless you end up buying one of the antiques.
For whom? – everyone