Orientalism #3

exposeThere are a few things to notice here. For example, the slave woman (dark-haired but white-skinned; possibly meant to be Spanish?) has her hands above her head, with her wrists together. The painter could say, if challenged, that she was flamenco dancing. Maybe. But really she has her wrists together over her head to suggest bondage without actually showing it.

The black woman is also an attractive woman, but she is clothed. Because there’s a dichotomy in these paintings. The naked woman is helpless and enslaved, in the situation. But in the painting she has all the erotic power, and the viewer’s gaze is focussed on her. So the white woman takes the lead sexual role for the painting’s  audience. The black woman may have more power in the situation, knowing the rules better, and perhaps having a training role. But in the painting she  is secondary decoration for the plight of the white woman. That’s what’s important, to the painter and his imagined audience. 

Meanwhile, the non-white (Arab) man watches the slave girl, but he’s perhaps more interested in his opium dreams (note the hookah) than in the woman. Sometimes the woman is humbled in these paintings not by being “indecently” inspected, but by being naked but still ignored. Slave girls: men in the East have so many they can take ’em or leave ’em.

So there’s a dual message: slave girl humiliation, and the idea that the East is decadent and effete, due to fall to a stronger civilisation. Perhaps some muscular, cricket-playing Christian chaps should take their lands off them, says a lot of Orientalist art, and free their slavegirls. After all, those poor girls have been terribly treated: still, they’ll be properly trained and inventively grateful. 

Well, that’s the flip side of every rescuer fantasy.

I’m still working, but I’ve seen the on-coming train poking its refulgent nose into the tunnel. I’m doomed.

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