Teaching Orientalism through Art Practice: ‘Othered’, the Virtual Exhibit

Teaching Orientalism through Art Practice: ‘Othered’, the Virtual Exhibit

Introduced and edited by Katherine Blouin and Girish Daswani

How do you teach Orientalism to upper-level undergraduate students Anthropology, Classical Studies, and History? How do you help students critically and creatively engage with the material read and discussed throughout term? How do you assess students’ understandings of imperial entanglements through time and space without replicating the very colonial fabric the disciplines these discussions are tied to originate from? How do you make the learning experience both scholarly and personal, intellectual and embodied? These are questions we’ve been actively mulling over since we first taught our class “Constructing the Other: Orientalism through Time and Space” at the University of Toronto, Scarborough campus.

On the first edition of the course, we opted for a more traditional essay in lieu of our final assignment. While the group proved a very engaging and enthusiastic one, we found their final essays rather underwhelming. The stamina, the dedication, and the depth were simply not there. It was not what we had expected based on our class interactions. To us, that was a sign that something was wrong, not with the students, but, rather, with our method of evaluation. As we started brainstorming over the second version of the course, which we just taught this semester, we decided to break away further from the Eurocentric assignment canon. To do so, we abandoned the “final essay” assignment, and sought inspiration from Girish’s previous, and highly successful, pedagogical experiments with art making in the Anthropology classroom. It is in this context that the idea of “Othered” came about.

For this assignment, each student was asked to create a piece of artwork that relates to the theme “Othered”. The piece in question could be of any type and use any medium(s), as long as its format allowed it to be presented or performed to the group on the last day of class. Students were encouraged to draw from the weekly readings and discussions, as well as from the other assignments they had previously completed for the course. They were also welcome to explore these themes in the light of their own experiences and relationship with the course’s topic. As a complement to their artwork piece, student were asked to write a 5-6 page interpretive essay that situates their creation within a broader historical context and articulates how it tackles issues and conversations that pertain to the contemporary relevance of (destabilizing) Orientalist tropes. Students had to use a bibliography of at least 10 scholarly titles.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to cancel in-class presentations, so we allowed students to see each other’s works by sharing and commenting on a virtual discussion board. We were absolutely blown away by the art pieces and essays we received, so much so that we’ve decided to edit them into a virtual exhibit. You can find below each student’s piece together with a short quote from their essay (these passages have been slightly edited and condensed by us for clarity). These pieces belong to a variety of genres and showcase a wide range of artistic practices – from poetry to digital art, from photography to collage, from drawing to spoken word, from painting to story telling and map making. Taken together, the works featured in this virtual exhibit propose a multifaceted reflection on the historical underpinnings and contemporary entailments of Orientalism, and emphasize how pervasive and all-encompassing mechanisms of othering are within the anthroposphere (i.e. geopolitics, gender, the environment, pop culture, art, media, museums, education, scholarship). We hope you find them as beautiful, thought-provoking, and powerful as we did, and that they inspire you to inject more art into your pedagogical practices.


Maria Bacchus described the impetus behind her drawing “How the West Wants you to See the World” in those words: “This map features a simplified sketch of the world and adopts the use of iconography and words to allude to how these areas are seen and promoted by the ‘West’, purposely excluding mention of people or general self-representation in any non-West continent. The way in which the world is seen and depicted is tied to race and the peoples that inhabit the land (see Maria Josefina Saldana-Portillo’s Indian Given). Maps essentially tell the story of the land, which has deeper implications based on what is purposely portrayed and left out (see Lee Maracle’s Memory Serves). As a result, the information produced and promoted by maps often serve to Other the peoples it depicts. Such a dynamic formed a foundation for this artwork, visualizing the messages maps contain (including historical erasures and the construction of other narratives)”.


“Othered” by Sarah Abraham

Sarah Abraham‘ s “Othered” mix medium piece seeks to illuminate how “the orientalist perspective created by the European, ‘Western’ world has unconsciously been embeded into society”. Thereby, it aims “to spark conversation on how this false narrative affects one’s perception of the Orient and other marginalized groups. This can be observed through the role artifacts, maps as well as institutions and media play in the creation of the ‘Other'”.


“Us and Them” by Erum Ali

Reflecting on her poem, Erum Ali writes: “Orientalist perceptions and reactions in the world are not accidental, but a conditioned response which I attempted to convey in my poem... Some of the main themes in this poem are the barriers set in place between peoples and while that may be interpreted as a physical barrier such as national borders, there are also invisible barriers set in place.”


Taylor Fernandes‘ photographic project “Entitled” uses metaphors and images to deconstruct particular labels and ways of knowing that are associated with common, ‘Western’ forms of knowledge: “For this project, I drew a lot on the course material to help me break down some of the preconceptions I had about the world going into university. I had a standard Canadian education, which focused primarily on North America and Europe as almost the centre of the world. Due to this, I was not aware of the amount of colonial knowledge I was reproducing and how I was actually contributing to this harmful binary of East and West through this labelling and understanding. However, going into university really opened my eyes to the cruel and uninformed way in which I was thinking about the world. I tried to almost replicate my process of relearning about these labels through using some of the course themes”.


“Oriental Feminism: The Colonial Politics of “Saving” Women” by Katherine Robertson

Katherine Robertson‘s “political cartoon contains two parallel images. On the left is a caricature of Lord Cromer, the British consul general in Egypt from 1882-1907, planting a British flag into a map cutout of Egypt.  The text bubble above his head is paraphrased from statements Lord Cromer made on Islam’s oppression of women blocking Egypt’s ability to become civilized…On the right is a caricature of Laura Bush, the former first lady of the United States, planting an American flag in a map cutout of Afghanistan.  The text bubble above is a quote from a radio address she made in 2001 on the importance of the “War on Terrorism” in saving the women of Afghanistan from the oppression of the Taliban” This cartoon “shows how oriental feminism carries on the imperial legacy of using narratives of “Oriental” women’s oppression to justify colonial intervention and subjugation.”


as a child born with western ideology
enveloping me like amniotic fluid,
unpleasant representations
have been suffocating to endure.
the content cascades
onto my being as if
it’s a much-needed waterfall
i must sit underneath,
to cleanse & drown away
my “misconceptions”
of my own people
& others.
“muslims are terrorists;”
“africans are gangsters;”
“mexicans are drug dealers;”
“europeans are the saviours.”
it has become all too “orientalist.”
a hollow reflection in the mirror,
the “orient” is unable
to recognize itself.
encased behind glass,
to be put on display
in the west,
& swathed in a
cold shroud of hegemony
for pleasure seekers & onlookers.
bodies were colonized and trans-muted
into puppets & marionettes,
controlled by the colonizing puppeteers.
their rules, their hierarchies, their legacies.
the “orient” is here for their proliferation
& acts as a steppingstone,
to develop & distinguish
the (already developed) “occident.”
for them, through the orient
they have refined philanthropic colonialism
since the day they set their mind
on a segregationist dogma.
“we are the civilized, you are the savages;
we will lead you to salvation, you must leave your religion(s);
we will lead you to progress, you must follow us without complaint.”
“you must feed our growth.”
imperialism thus informs fake altruism.
rooted in power dynamics,
dripping with the colonial past’s
histories of violence.
the white privilege that shapes orientalist “discourse,”
the slow violence that is enacted upon our everything
̶ from our bodies & lands, to our scholarship & heritage ̶
why? because the “selfless” europeans graduated with “magna cum laude”
from “prestigious” universities
that allow them to do so.
we are depoliticized; dehistoricized;
framed for convenience;
the archetypal (caricatured) figure;
romanticized & silenced;
our figures are cut clean
from racialized & imaginative geographies
that seek to inflict slow violence
on our already damaged hearts.
the “orient,” then, is merely a chess piece
for western hegemony to emulate
history’s empires & legacies
as “manifest destiny”
of europe encroaching upon
its neighbouring old world territories and
the new world.
“we are the instruments of god & bring upon you the holy faith.”
colonial & imperial masculinities, then,
assert & dominate even cartography,
centering themselves with imperial (& egoistic) ambition
delimiting; occluding, both places & stories.
even the “postcolonial” is ashamed
as the shouts still reverberate,
despite the dampening of sound waves
the white man frantically engages in,
mimicking the pure snow in wintertime.
but, the snow falls gently, to cover and permeate the soil,
creating reserves and water tables to nurture both the earth and its people,
after the season’s reign is over,
compensating for the cold shroud it brings.
the “empire” covers all land, but only for its own vanity.
the “west” is then a predator, lurking behind its “eastern” prey.
if the denial of coevalness continues,
if the denial of scholarship continues,
if the denial of colonial legacies permeating our everyday continues,
how will “decolonization” work?
it's just white vigilantism, no?

Maherah Sadaf‘s poem “Violence” tackles the problematic visions and misrepresentations (fuelled by political and intellectual motives) the ‘West’ projects onto the ‘East’. ‘Orientalism’ creates uneven power hierarchies on which slow violence is enacted upon the ‘subjects’, whose land, bodies, and knowledge are extracted and exploited for profits by the ‘West’. A pre-made narrative is set out to be followed, as racist (and stereotypical) undertones are implicated in what is (not) ‘acceptable”, how Orientals must act, and what is (not) occluded (in terms of history and portrayals). “Violence” serves to make clear the extractive and dominating processes perpetrated in the East that simultaneously fuel cultural imaginaries, creating imagined geographies.


“The Orient Looks Back at You” by Cassandra Hawkins

Cassandra Hawkins‘ painting “The Orient Looks Back at You” seeks to both showcase and “destabilize” the power dynamics at play in Orientalism: “Due to the reality of the colonial remaining (though hidden) in the post-colonial, I have chosen to personify the Orient in the form of a naked, racially ambiguous young woman, seated on rubble. I have chosen to have her hands bound (still controlled), injured (bleeding), and her unclothed (on view for the western gaze) to expose the ways in which orientalism and colonial duress remain in and directly impact relations in our contemporary time… Diversity, representation and tokenism are tactics that have failed, therefore what must occur is the decentering and rejection of particular Eurocentric values. Maybe it is time for the disenfranchised to speak and gaze back.”


Marilyn McGrath’s reading of The Story of Babar the Little Elephant (de Brunhoff 1961 (1931))

Marilyn McGrath‘s reading of Jean de Brunhoff’s first installment of the hugely popular children book series Babar to her grandchildren explores the entanglements between colonial propaganda and children literature. “The power of a nation to enforce a culture and belief system onto an entire other nation and its inhabitants through colonialism was devastating. When the occupying nation used the strategic, often subliminal, force of propaganda to inform and reinforce their ‘right’ to do so, the consequences were felt not only by those conquered but also those at home. If that propaganda was in the form of literature for the young, then the battle between might vs right and civilized vs nature became part of the learning and development of future citizens. The Story of Babar the little elephant, written and illustrated for the youngest of audiences, is one such example”.


“The Frame of Orientalism” by Mantaka Muhee

Mantaka Muhee‘s drawing “The Frame of Orientalism” draws from the work of Edward Said, Timothy Mitchell and Ann Stoler. Her artwork “mimics previous paintings of Napoléon’s invasion of Egypt from 1798 to 1802, also known as the Expédition d’Égypte. The drawing depicts a male French painter in traditional early 19th century painters clothing. His almost finished painting sits within an iconic French frame. Inside the frame, one can see Napoléon guiding his army towards the pyramids of Giza while sitting on his horse in front of a single, helpless Egyptian woman. The frame, however, covers up the reality that lies beyond, namely a bustling marketplace with a developed city overlooking it, filled with people, goods and livelihood”. The intricate drawing also offers a visual commentary on the entanglement between imperialism, the Antiquities trade, and knowledge production: “Inside the frame, in the upper right hand corner of the drawing, a cart with a large rock is being pulled towards a French battleship is seen . This represents the taking of the Rosetta stone. The ship is docked on the banks of the Nile and filled with a substantial amount of cargo, including, in the middle, ‘Cleopatra’s needle’. Although the obelisk was not taken on this journey, this contemporary detail points to the large-scale removal of monumental Egyptian artifacts and sculptures during and after the Expédition d’Égypte.”


“Othered in the Museum” by Dinah Samuel

Dinah Samuel‘s “Othered in the Museum” is a statement on the construction of museums and their purpose as institutions. While hailed for their informative nature, museums’ power over both knowledge and artifacts stands to be questioned. The piece reflects on the ways in which cultures and histories are put in display in museums as a way to cement their – temporal and geographical – “otherness”. It represents how the “Other” is displaced in its framing, the difference of temporalities, the suppression and uplifting of certain voices, and the layout of the museum throughout.


Ariana Rowley‘s “Panopticon” offers another visual reflection on the colonial roots of and ongoing need to decolonize museums: “Going through this course has opened my eyes to the very real impact that Orientalism and methods of ‘Othering’ have had on not only the academic world, but also on the world of museum and cultural studies…When thinking about what type of artwork I could create that relates to the relations between museum practices and methods of ‘Othering’, I immediately thought of Michel Foucault’s theories of surveillance… The idea that the contributions of academics and museum professionals to the interpretation and scholarship of history holds some kind of authority over the ways in which history and culture in understood reminds me of Foucault’s use of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon…Therefore, I created an artwork that shows my visual interpretation of the Panopticon as a museum, where the observer at the centre (i.e. the institution, professional, and visitor of museums) embodies the ‘Whiteness’ discussed by Girish Daswani in his article “On the Whiteness of Anthropology”, and interprets the “White Man as Expert” presented by Edward Said”.


“Levelling Out the Playing Field” by Tiara Mullick

The painting “Levelling Out the Playing Field” by Tiara Mullick is a personal and historically-anchored work: “The painting depicts a person (that is me) in a lush green field, staring into the periphery. The unique aspect of the art is the head, which is illustrated by an image of the brain. The brain symbolizes cognition and intellectual capacity. It signifies differences linked to having a disability, and how we all come from various backgrounds and (dis) abilities. This painting, for me, represents or expresses my identity with a learning disability… By saying a person is with a disability, we are automatically ‘othering’ them. We are othering them based on the criteria of ability. The ability to work, think, and ‘do’ things. Most of all, the ability to serve this capitalist society. Such an ideology emerged in the 18th or 19th century, at the time of European colonial empire. It was a method to govern the “savage, uncivilized Other into the citizen… Through this art piece, I hope to convey that similar to the binary opposition between the Orient vs. Occident, or Us vs. Them, there is an ‘able vs. (dis)able’ one that perpetuates today. This calls for levelling out the playing field and decolonizing disability”.

Raisa Masud reflects on her work entitled “The Desi Woman as the Antitype: Building the White Man’s Ideal Self” in those terms: “The South Asian Woman, despite being recognized for centuries as a vessel for orientalist perceptions and assessed as the ultimate ‘Other’ to grant the White man’s self-idealization, she is more than that. She is not defined by the titles that bind her to patriarchal relationships. She is a writer, an educator, an activist, and a hero.”


Ghazal Farkhari‘s sketch is a reinterpretation of Steve McCurry’s famous “Afghan Girl” picture: “The drawing shows the girl, along with the text saying ‘my name is Sharbat Ghula’. The reason I sketched this piece along with the caption is because it is one of the key symbols for which Afghanistan is known. It is also re Orientalised and represented by Afghan people themselves. The portrait, taken by a white man from the West, can be seen hung in Afghan restaurants, homes and printed on souvenirs… This portrait speaks to me because it is an image I have grown up with and known my entire life. However, after taking the Orientalism class, and reflecting on my own diasporic ties, I realized that I did not even know the name of the girl in the photo. She has been stripped of an identity and placed on billboards and souvenirs as the face of an entire nation, but somehow had no voice of her own.” As a complement, she produced a spoken word piece which is “a letter, or plea, from the voice of the poet to the ‘Orient’ as a being, acknowledges the representation of the Orient in the West, and encourages the Orient to speak out against this representation and create its own identity based on its history”.


Seemil Chaudhry created a fictional book cover: “Taking inspiration from the book Arabian Nights Volume I: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights (which I happen to own a copy of), I recreated the, “Oriental Nights – Volume I: A Sensible Tales of Mystique and Exotique Nights” (I used similar wording from Gustave Flaubert’s title Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour). Upon sight, the viewer is presented with a mesh of visual images, signifying a kind of familiarity of icons, often portrayed in western pop-culture (Ancient Egypt, Arab thugs, Belly-dancer). At the same time, the ripped-not entirely complete-effect of the images, allow it to remain somewhat ominous and mysterious; we do not see the entire picture. Behind the images is a background depicting a sandy landscape, again registering a familiar relation to the desert, not uncommon to the western eye as this landscape has been used in countless films regarding the “East” and “the orient” [The Mummy (1999), The Prince of Egypt (1998), Land of the Pharaohs (1955), etc]. I have framed the central portion of the book cover with the Description de l’Égypte‘s frontispice page’s border”.


“The West Vs. The Rest” by Kasthuri Kanesalingam

Kasthuri Kanesalingam‘s poem “The West Vs. The Rest” brings together the course’s readings and discussions with the author’s lived experiences with racism and Orientalism: “I wrote a poem for what I felt I have learned throughout this class, from my own experience of racism and watching those around me experience prejudice against their skin tone. Poetry has been an outlet for many artists to express their emotions and many Asians in various countries have used poetry to express their oppression in a symbolic way. I considered doing the same as poetry is my own source of outlet as well. This poem is titled “The West Vs. The Rest”. From the beginning of class I knew I wanted to write a poem that discusses the divide based on the prejudice of our skin that is within our world.”


Emily Briell explains the motivation behind her poem “Creating ‘Us’ and the ‘Other’ in those words: “In the short poem I wrote the three major ideas I wanted to explore were the constancy of Orientalisms, the pervasiveness of Orientalist ideas in our culture, even in places that you would not expect it, and the idea that the collective ‘Us’ does not exist expect to provide an opposition to the ‘Them'”.  


Fathima Ayesha Azad reflects on her photo mosaic “My Own Experience of Being the ‘Orient'”: “I created an image of myself using images which represent my own journey as a woman as well as cultural references which belong to both Sri Lankan culture as well the colonial past which has also carved my journey. I have included a legend to explain some of the images I used”.

Katherine Blouin is Associate Professor in Roman History and Classics at the University of Toronto. She is one of the co-founders and editors of Everyday Orientalism

Girish Daswani is Associate Professor in Anthropology at the University of Toronto. A regular contributor to Everyday Orientalism, he is also the founder and editor of the blog Africa Proactive

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