Image on the left, The Harem by John Frederick Lewis 1876.
Prohibited © Shaheen Ahmed. February 1998
As a project I didn't fully appreciate the depth and pull of attraction this theme had for me. I chose to respond to the painting by John Frederick Lewis called 'The Harem'.
At the time I was reading Edward Said's book 'Orientalism'. I had a love hate relationship with this painting. I would walk into BMAG and admire the painting but then become frustrated with the inaccuracies within Lewis's depiction, from my personel view point. The models looked far too European. The more I read about the so called 'Harem' the more I placed myself within this project, there was nothing sexual or illicit within this private area of a royal household. It was only the wealthy royals that could afford to segregate their women like this. I decided to focus on what Lewis would have really seen if he was taken into the women's quarters. He would have found an empty room. Initially I decided to cover all the women in the painting with head scarves. This I did for my first draft but then I thought about what would have happened if a European male said he wanted to enter the women's quarters – the women would have left the room to relax and socialise elsewhere. So I decided to erase the women using Photoshop and keep the detail of the room with the geometric patterns and wood carvings.
There was scope for me to take this further and learn from this project. In hindsight I should have asked for feedback. Perhaps the text I added to the image was too direct and could have been a tad more subtle..
'There was a sense of superiority about the way women were treated in the West
and a view that women in Islam were oppressed and of course kept away from the public gaze.
So there was a sort of moral condescension and even revulsion at this.'
taken from 'Orientalism' by Edward Said.
The workshops my best friend the late Amrik Chohan and I delivered were for families to use the Computer package 'Adobe Photoshop' which in 1998 was fairly new to most people.
Perhaps my creative response could have been more refined and not so 'in your face'. But for myself that is something that would come with time, experience and knowledge. I learnt that an artist has to help her/himself. Institutions like Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, were far too busy to suggest a project. It would have been a good opportunity for both myself and BMAG to explore this 'Orientalism' within British 19th Century Paintings. One could say that so called 'harems' were evident in some parts of the world. I chose to challenge the depiction of the East as being exotic and romanticised through novels and paintings of the 19th Century.
As I read this piece of text I wrote nearly fifteen years ago, I think of the Tate's recent (2008) exhibition The Lure of the East http://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/exhibition/lure-east-british-orientalist-painting.