The veiled world of Islam appears in Western painting as a style and a mood and an antique fascination.
The style is Orientalism. The mood is one of languor. The antique fascination with the mysterious East goes back at least to Rembrandt, and forward to Matisse.
Rembrandt, in his studio in 17th-century Holland, kept, and also wore, scimitars and turbans, but the style really blossomed after 1799, when Napoleon went to Egypt and gazed upon the Sphinx. Ingres, when he fantasized his tumblings of rounded nudes in steamy Turkish baths, was a sort-of Orientalist, and so was Eugene Delacroix, who dreamed his savage dreams of Arab steeds, and tigers, and burning desert sands; and so, too, was Matisse, who, well into our century, could hardly paint at all unless he had a model in see-through harem trousers posing at hand.
Orientalism is still with us, lingering like a perfume.
Its old entrancements swirl through four new exhibitions now coincidentally on view on the Mall.
One surveys calligraphies, sacred for the most part, of traditional Islam; the second, of old photographs, takes the viewer on a visual tour of late 19th-century Persia. The other two present art of our own time.
Both Shahzia Sikander, who is showing paintings at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, and Jananne al-Ani, whose photographs are on display at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, have taken Orientalism and given it a flip.
Both are young and up-to-date. Sikander is 30, Ani 33. Both are Orientalists, but post-colonial Orientalists, which means they view Orientalism through concerns of gender, feminism and other lenses of our time.
Sikander is Pakistani, and one sees that in her work. Since 1992 she has been studying and working in multicultural America, and that's apparent, too.
The tradition she extends in "Directions: Shahzia Sikander" is that of the miniature, for her paintings come with pedigrees. From the moment you glimpse them, you find yourself remembering the tiny illustrations made for patient delectation in the palaces of Persia and those of the Mughals, the Islamic emperors of India. She uses the same scale--more that of the book than that of the wall. And she depicts the same stacked spaces, compact and interlocked.
The brushes she works with are the same ones used in olden days. Squirrel hairs are preferred, and she uses them to paint the same verdant borders--with their eye-enticing patterns and their joyous songbirds, jewel-bright and tiny, singing in the leaves.
The Islamic and Hindu masters of the miniature liked to work with mica dust, with glinting gold or beetles' wings, to lend their pictures grains of light, like sprinklings of stars. Sikander is as lavish with sprinklings of thought. Both Eastern thoughts and Western ones twinkle in her art--both goddesses with many arms and Botticellian seashells, both Mughal forts in Pakistan and row houses in Texas, both Koranic calligraphies and minimalistic grids.
Her technique is antique, and rigorous, and slow. To make her colors glow she will sometimes put them down in 10 or 20 layers. But in spite of all that slowness, her images ensure that the viewer's mind keeps hurtling--from the Hindu goddess Kali, who delivers death, to Cinderella's slipper, from African American hairdos to the beard of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj Mahal.
Sikander was born in Lahore, and studied there with master miniaturist Bashir Ahmed at the National College of Art. As many of the best miniatures of Pakistan left the region long ago, Sikander says the best she came across while studying in Pakistan were the ones in Smithsonian Institution catalogues. In the early 1990s she spent two years in Rhode Island; now she lives in Texas. In her pictures, she asks herself: What is her identity? How has it been constructed? Contemporary notions of race and class and gender, and memories of ancient kings, and thoughts of the art market, are all mixed up together in her new, yet not new, art.
Jananne al-Ani has been thinking about veils and how they have been used in Orientalist art to differentiate the women of the West from those of the East. She herself is half-and-half. Born in 1966 to an Irish mother and an Iraqi father, she lived until she was 13 in Iraq, and after that in England. Both halves of her being are encountered in the photographs in her Sackler show, "Constructing Identities: Recent Works by Jananne al-Ani."
In the largest work displayed--projected on a screen, it is a slowly changing sequence of overlapping stills--the artist poses calmly with the women of her family, her mother and three sisters. They just sit in their wooden chairs staring at the viewer. The sitters do not move, but their veils come and go.
Veils are mysterious things. They turn away the gaze, while at the same time they entice it. Veils are intended, or at least so one supposes, to conceal the sexuality of the human beings behind them. But if you've ever been to places where veils are worn daily, you know they do so incompletely. Eyes that flirt or flash above a partial veil do so more enticingly than they ever would in a blankly naked face. How does Islam view the feminine? How, through bits of cloth, are feminine identities visually constructed? Such questions, not so different from those posed at the Hirshhorn, are the subjects of this art.
Al-Ani's veiled images might make you think of Salome or of Scheherazade. Instead of dreams of the near-East, "Sevruguin and the Persian Image: Photographs of Iran, 1870-1930," on view in the next gallery, depicts the real thing.
Antoin Sevruguin, whose father was a Russian, whose mother a Georgian, was born in the 1830s in the Russian Embassy in Tehran. It was there he made his name, after 1870, picturing Iran.
He made photographs of everyone. He shot rug weavers and soldiers and women wearing veils. He shot wrestlers and tourists, criminals and dervishes, and the courtiers of the shah. How exotic the exotic East appeared to Western eyes, not just to Orientalists, is the compound message of the innocent, yet knowing, pictures in this show.
Sevruguin, an educated man who read widely in four languages (Persian, Russian, Armenian and French), was part businessman, part hack, part busy news photographer, part artist to the king.
The ruler of the time, Nasir al-din Shah, thought photography just dandy, and gave Sevruguin vast freedom. The photographer, in consequence, shot women smoking hookahs in what appears to be the harem, and the shah's troops on their camels, and dervishes with axes, and small boys being whipped on the soles of their feet. He shot money changers, shepherds and exotic Kurdish beauties. The most harrowing of his pictures shows "A Thief Being Buried Alive." He also photographed the king.
The photographer at court was given amazing access. He shot the king at play. He shot the king at work. In one grand image shown--it's as complex as a miniature, or as a Velazquez--the shah sits at his desk amid gilded mirrors while his suspicious courtiers look back at us askance. In another yet more intimate, we are allowed to watch while a trio of court barbers dye the shah's immense mustache.
Such photographs explain as well as any post-colonial comments do the lures of Orientalism. How lustrous, how strange to 19th-century Western eyes were the shadows of Morocco, the casbahs of Algeria, the monuments of Egypt, and the sights of the Near East.
The Sackler is also exhibiting "Imaging the Word: Selections of Calligraphy," a show whose rhythmic letters--on paper or on parchment or cut into the hardnesses of steel, gold or agate--are like music for the eye.
Among the coins of gold and decorated axes and holy Koran pages, the mood of Orientalism is at last complete. Almost nothing in this last show reminds one of the West.
"Imaging the Word" closes on May 7, "Constructing Identities: Recent Works by Jananne al-Ani" on Feb. 28, and the Sevruguin display on May 28. "Directions: Shahzia Sikander" at the Hirshhorn closes Feb. 21. "Imaging the Word: Selections of Calligraphy" at the Sackler closes Feb. 28.