O n 2 June I was honoured to attend the opening in Kuala Lumpur of the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s long-awaited exhibition, Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? Inaugurated in the presence of Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, the mayor of KL, and Syed Mokhtar Albukhary - founder of the Albukhary Foundation whose generosity led to the creation of the museum which celebrates its 25th anniversary this year - the exhibition showcases over a hundred of the more than three hundred paintings acquired by the museum since 2008, the majority of them in our annual Orientalist Sales, under the auspices of its director Syed Mohamed Albukhary.
Some of the star works, including Jean-Léon Gérôme’s Riders Crossing the Desert (which set the world record price for the artist at auction), Ludwig Deutsch’s The Guard, and Charles Robertson’s The Carpet Seller, Cairo, formerly belonged to the legendary Najd Collection of Orientalist Paintings, sold at Sotheby’s in 2019-20.
The exhibition, juxtaposing these paintings and watercolours and Islamic objects from the IAMM’s permanent collection, not only opens a dialogue between the two, the former depicting the latter - ranging from Ottoman candlesticks and ceramics to arms and armour and textiles - in painted naturalistic settings outside of the vitrines they occupy today; it also explores and celebrates the broader artistic and cultural dialogue between the European and Islamic worlds, the subject of the 2019 joint British Museum and IAMM exhibition held at the BM, Inspired by the East. How the Islamic World influenced Western Art.
The vast majority of the paintings and watercolours on view were painted by Western artists, fascinated by, and eager to explore, the Muslim East. Their output gave rise to a whole new genre in Western art in the nineteenth century, and arguably even inspired the discipline of Islamic scholarship in the West.
Conversely, Orientalist art inspired a number of artists from the regions depicted, most famously the nineteenth-century Ottoman painter Osman Hamdy Bey, who was among the first to introduce the French academic style of painting to Turkey.
And a hundred years on, private and museum collectors alike from across the Islamic world are avidly buying Orientalist art not just for its quality and beauty, but for its documentary value, shining light as it does on how the region looked at a time before photography was widespread and local artists were engaged in calligraphy, ceramics, metalwork, and weaving rather than figurative painting.
Seeing the exhibition in a multi-cultural city like Kuala Lumpur, a meeting point between East and West dating back to the spice trade of the fifteenth century, and one still indelibly marked by its more recent British colonial past, was particularly fascinating and poignant.
I myself was staying in the British-built Majestic Hotel, a stone’s throw from the IAMM, its valets dressed in khaki uniforms and pith helmets, and with 1930s band music tinkling over the tannoy; while across the street the old main railway station, built in 1910-17 in the Edwardian Indian Gothic style with its ornate arcades and onion domes presents an incongruous silhouette against the gleaming spires of KL’s twenty-first century skyscrapers.
The proponents of Edward Said’s thesis expounded in his seminal book Orientalism (1978) would argue that Orientalist art is simply another manifestation of the West’s desire to leave its cultural imprint on the East, depicting it as somewhere backward and in need of improvement by the colonisers. However, I would strongly argue the opposite. My point about the architecture is a case in point - the East inspired a whole new style in civic architecture, albeit fanciful, which even caught on back in Europe.
As for Orientalist art, today’s most important collectors all hail from the Islamic world, from Morocco to the Gulf and South East Asia - are the last to take offence at these artists’ largely sincere attempts to observe, or at least create a respectful impression of, the world they encountered on their travels - travels, incidentally, that were for the most part arduous, dangerous, and expensive, and not undertaken lightly.
On the contrary, collectors and the wider public in the region embrace Orientalist art for its power to enlighten, and what stronger endorsement of this than the IAMM’s visionary exhibition and accompanying book.
Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? at the IAMM Kuala Lumpur, a Sotheby’s Preferred Museum Partner, runs until 15 October. The publication, Orientalist Paintings: Mirror or Mirage? is available to purchase at iamm.org.my