One of the most eye-catching exhibits in Manchester Museum's Gifts for the Gods – Animal Mummies Revealed is the magnificent 1878 orientalist masterpiece The Gods and their Makers by Edwin Long, on loan from Towneley Hall, Burnley, dominating the middle section of the gallery space at an impressive 142 x 224 cm.
Long's oil on canvas captures an essence of Ancient Egypt that is representative of the way that Egypt was imagined in late 19th century Europe; an exotic and beautiful image that has found perpetuity, especially in film and popular culture. So much so that ancient Egypt monopolises a considerably large corner of today's fiction and fantasy market; the mythologised pop image of Katy Perry in her Dark Horse music video supports a collective social consciousness of what is essentialised and understood as 'Ancient Egypt'. It is perhaps not a surprise then that a Google search for 'Cleopatra' is dominated by 'orientalised' images of Elizabeth Taylor as a seductive temptress, rather than archaeological depictions of the Ptolemaic ruler.
The Orient contrasts with the Occident, as the rising sun contrasts with the setting sun, and although there is not an intrinsic idea of place within the words, European usage effectively fixes the Orient geographically. 'Orientalism' therefore became a style of writing, and here of painting, that romanticised the idea of Egypt and the Middle East, and was one of the new styles of "academic art" that rose to prominence in the 19th century, following the trend away from realism, towards idealism, whereby historicist painting of classical, religious and mythological subjects dominated the top end in the hierarchy of genres.
Exactly one hundred years after Long painted The Gods and their Makers, in 1978 Edward Said published his seminal work, Orientalism, which challenged the ways that the Middle East has been perceived and portrayed by the West, and has forever changed how cultures are examined, defined and described.
Edward Wadie Said, a Palestinian born American citizen, was a historian, literary theoretician and cultural critic whose early life can be characterised by his lack of a feeling of place ("Between Worlds" in Reflections on Exile and other Essays, 2002), something that was to pervade his future work. He was also influenced by post-structuralist theorists such as Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, who were writing about the social and political construction and power structures of difference. Said critiqued the fixity of the positions of 'East' and 'West' around an imaginary centre in Europe, demonstrating the 'Orient' as an object to European subjectivity and superiority. And although not without its errors or critics, Said's Orientalism has become a founding document for postcolonial studies, influencing contemporary theorists including Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.
The imaginary and static representation of Eastern cultures by the West is not confined to colonial history, but dates from ancient times to the modern day.
The Greek tragedy Persians, written by Aeschylus was fist performed over two millennia ago, in 472 BC. Aeschylus constructed the cultural superiority of the Greeks by representing their Persian military rivals as all that the Greeks were not; this is mirrored by the colonial representation of subalterns who were incapable of speaking for themselves, and much less capable of composing their own cultural and historical narratives.
Techniques that Aeschylus uses to demonstrate the difference and inferiority of the Persians are very similar to those used centuries later by painters like Edwin Long. Both evidence a luxury, even decadence, particularly of dress. Aeschylus uses the Greek word habros, which can be translated as soft, luxuriant, and even effeminate, contrasting the Greek 'Fatherland' (Persians, line 402). This idea of emasculation is perhaps one of the key elements of the orientalised construction of the Middle East and Asia as 'Other'; nineteenth century British imperial colonisation was at least in part justified by the Christianisation of the known world, even the titling of Edwin Long's painting The Gods and their Makers, for a contemporary audience, will have resonated with the idea of the blasphemy of creating idols and worshipping false gods (Exodus 20:2-6), and that the act of god-making is afforded to women, means that this image is representative of everything that Victorian England was not. Likewise, Aeschylus portrays only Greek gods, despite the narrative being from a Persian viewpoint; by not allowing the Persians their own beliefs, in the same way as the evangelising colonisers, this positions the Europeans, millennia apart, as ontologically superior.
In much more recent times, Ridley Scott's 2014 film Exodus: Gods and Kings demonstrates the how the film industry of the West retains a position of power when representing ancient Egypt. Exodus… was condemned for 'whitewashing' its leading roles and its presentation of aspects of Egyptian history, over 1,000 years apart, as a simultaneous and static past that can be studied, depicted and reproduced, by a Western society that is developed, rational, flexible and superior.
Cultural theories do not make Edwin Long's painting less beautiful; it is remarkable even in the most minute details – the reflections from the jewellery, the fall of the cloth, down to the animation of the little cats in the corner. What these ideas bring is context; a glimpse with a critical eye beyond the paint into the world in which it was created, built upon ideologies dating back to the 5th century BC.
As a final thought, back in 1980 Edward Said wrote,
"So far as the United States seems to be concerned, it is only a slight overstatement to say that Moslems and Arabs are essentially seen as either oil suppliers or potential terrorists. Very little of the detail, the human density, the passion of Arab–Moslem life has entered the awareness of even those people whose profession it is to report the Arab world. What we have, instead, is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world, presented in such a way as to make that world vulnerable to military aggression." (Said, 1980 "Islam Through Western Eyes" in The Nation)
This is a timely reminder that 35 years on, now is the time for a different look at difference; now is the time for change.