Inspired by the east at the British Museum

Inspired by the east: how the Islamic world influenced western art
10th October 2019 – 26th January 2020

The current exhibition at the British Museum explores and celebrates the cultural links between East and West. A joint exhibition with the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia it is a much needed show.

Tiles held in the Louvre

Where is the East?

Edward Said, who is quoted early on in the exhibition, criticised the western image of the East as a timeless place in which nothing changes. The [Middle] East stands for Islam, the exotic, luxury. By creating an “orientalised” East, an Other to contrast itself with, the West creates its own image. If the West is benighted, liberal, open, tolerant, scientific etc, the East is the complete opposite and most crucially vice versa.

The view of the East was also informed by those viewing it. The Western Imperial gaze was largely male. Images of harems were popular in the West for centuries from Mozart’s Il Seraglio to the Sheik (starring Rudolph Valentino).

It is a shame then that the show does not unpick these ideas more closely.

It has an old history. Some of it plays on the ideology of the Umayyads who contrasted the pure Arabic of the nomadic pastoralists with the cosmopolitan Arabic of the emerging cities of their empire. Much of it is related to later empire.

The show begins with a map of the Middle East and a statement that the use of terms does not suggest that the British Museum officially recognises any of the terms used. Perhaps the lack of modern day borders on any of the maps is an attempt to separate the museum from Western colonialism in the region, which carved it up into separate states. But the weight of empire hangs heavy on this show.  Its shadow falls on almost every single item in display, even if it is never brought into the light and examined closely.

The anxiety of influence

Eastern art should not be viewed just through the prism of Western Imperialism. An idea which replicates the imperial gaze in different ways.

The curators are at pains to examine how cultures in the Middle East responded to new visitors. Persian costume books are a good comparison with Western costume books. But because of the items on display, it feels more like a one way exchange of ideas from East to West. The orientalist paintings and interiors of David Roberts or Lord Leighton are held up as the height of this exchange and not, for example, the centuries of Arabic scholarship which inspired Western scholars.

At its most fundamental level Western involvement in the Middle East is simplified down to cultural borrowings. The captions next to a drawing of Lawrence of Arabia by Augustus John merely mentions that Lawrence is wearing Arabic costume. It does not mention his involvement in the Arab Revolt nor the fact that drawing was likely made after the war in the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 (when John painted Lawrence) which had a massive impact on later global history. European involvement in the Middle East during this period is today most often connected to the Daesh and their use of history to justify  terrorism, rape and murder.

Another more fundamental problem is that there was no single culture in the Middle East. The exhibition focuses on the Ottoman Empire, but even the Ottoman Empire was a multilayered culture integrating in different ways several forms of cultures over many centuries. The Ottoman Empire neatly bookmarks the End of the Medieval Period (in 1553 with the Fall of Constaninople) to the beginnings of modernity in 1919. It was also never wholly Eastern. Istanbul was the first diplomatic city. A caption misleadingly says that the Ottoman Empire was Europe’s most powerful neighbour. It should instead be called one of Europe’s most powerful states, as it controlled much of the Southern and Eastern parts of the continent. It was a key player in several continental alliances during the Seventeenth and Eighteenth centuries.

But you can only fit so much into a show. Said said,

“Imperialism consolidated the mixture of cultures and identities on a global scale. But its worst and most paradoxical gift was to allow people to believe that they were only, mainly, exclusively, white, or Black, or Western, or Oriental. Yet just as human beings make their own history, they also make their cultures and ethnic identities. No one can deny the persisting continuities of long traditions, sustained habitations, national languages, and cultural geographies, but there seems no reason except fear and prejudice to keep insisting on their separation and distinctiveness, as if that was all human life was about. Survival in fact is about the connections between things; in Eliot’s phrase, reality cannot be deprived of the “other echoes [that] inhabit the garden.”

Art and the east

The exhibition reads as if Western visitors went to the East, briefly inspired artists there, artists in the West were inspired in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and then artists from the East responded to this art decades later. In fact the two way connection of cultures was much more complex. A particular highlight, not examined here, was the Art et Liberte movement in Egypt in the 20s.

Orientalist art is enjoying a bit of a vogue. It has been decried for its florid Victorian style and caricatures, but interest has grown in recent years especially from buyers in the Middle East.

It is not a marginal art movement but has inspired much of our conception of the region (both in the East and West). An example are the paintings of Ancient Egypt from the period in which the Western, male gaze roamed equally over women and antiquities. Several Hollywood movies and children’s history books were inspired by such images, meaning they continue to impact on culture years later.

The exhibition shows several Western paintings from this period in a cluttered room, similar to an overcrowded charity shop or Auction room. Although confusing and stressful in terms of UX, it is a very powerful symbol of the fact that the art has not aged well.

The final corridor is dedicated to modern day artists from the region. They deserved more space but their art speaks with an emotion and a dignity that more than makes up for the lack of space. The works chosen for this final stage responds to Western depictions of women from the East as controlled, sexualised and compliant. The tight space chosen for them, perhaps speaks to their position in the contemporary art world.


A fascinating exhibition, more is needed to really unpick what East means, what West means and the complex ways that cultures (plural) from both regions interacted with each other but that is more the topic of a book than an exhibition. A recommended show.