Let's be honest, the Middle East has gotten a bad rap. With an expanding amount of media attention drawn to violent acts by violent groups, it's no wonder the identity of this region of 20-some nations remains as elusive, distorted and inaccessible to the western world as ever. This week, however, Colorado College's new I.D.E.A. Space exhibit opens the proverbial iron curtain with ReOrientations: Defining and Defying 19th Century French Images of the Arab World.
"The typical accepted [portrayal] is Napoleon's invasion of the Middle East," says curator Jessica Hunter-Larsen. "There was a tendency by [traveling French painters] to 'exotify' the Middle East ... they were very dramatic and theatrical images, primarily for European audiences."
Academic painters at the time documented more realistic examples of the region, Hunter-Larsen says, but the theatrical prevailed. The term "Arab" was so synonymous with exoticism in the 19th century, in fact, that Edgar Allan Poe wrote a book called Tales of The Grotesque and Arabesque.
To provide a baseline for today's viewers, ReOrientations offers nine of those typical images, paintings borrowed from New York's Dahesh Museum of Art of Napoleon's 19th-century conquest. But the show juxtaposes them with the work of two contemporary artists, Lalla A. Essaydi and Ibi Ibrahim.
"I decided on these two artists because their photographs of human figures tell interesting stories and narratives," Hunter-Larsen says. "They're interestingly ambiguous."
Ibrahim, 27, a Michigan-born artist of Yemeni descent, is in the sixth year of a photographic career that's included a three-month residency in Paris at Cité Internationale des Arts. He started out doing art as "an escape from reality," but these days, he usually heads straight back into it.
Ibrahim describes his style as dealing with "issues of gender, sexuality and identity in Muslim conservative societies." He notes his works for ReOrientations "received plenty of criticism and were banned from being exhibited in some conservative countries. But it enabled me to connect with a wide audience through different social networks.
"They represent the youth of the Arab world, their choices in life, their emotions, and their strength to rebel against the society. But then also each piece has its own story." He plans to tell those stories at the show's opening reception and accompanying IDEA Cabaret.
Stereotypes of the Arab world persist, and probably will, in a world filled with Disney's flying carpets and magic lamps. But Ibrahim feels his art is one step toward appreciating lesser-known tales "of conflict within one's own religion and culture, [and] also shows the youth as they rebel and find their own way in dealing with traditions."