Via Racialicious: Critique of Asian Canadian’s Orientalist Fantasies

31 07 2012

There’s a great article on Racialicious today by Guest Contributor Aditi Surie von Czechowski, “Modern Love In Mumbai’s ‘Wild West’: A Critique Of Orientalist Fantasies In Contemporary Travel Narratives

Edward Saïd's Orientalism

On Racialicious today, by Guest Contributor Aditi Surie von Czechowski, “Modern Love In Mumbai’s ‘Wild West’: A Critique Of Orientalist Fantasies In Contemporary Travel Narratives”

The author opens with a critique of the NY Times coverage of India in general, small tidbit here (emphasis added):

“Combined with Nick Kristof’s regular martyring operations to rescue underage trafficked prostitutes in Kolkatan brothels, what we have here is a consistent picture of an India that is not yet “fully modern,” informed by the liberal discourse of rights and progress. It seems that the New York Times will never, ever tire of incessantly replicating imperial tropes.”

Sound like a museum we know?

The bulk of the article then deconstructs the Orientalism in a travel story that appears in the Times’ Modern Love column by May Jeong, a Korean Canadian reporter based in Toronto (serving as a reminder that whiteness is not limited by skin color).  Surie von Czechowski notes:

“Jeong’s writing is of a piece with that familiar eroticization of India–Orientalist imaginings of the lushness of nature combine with the well-worn tropes of India as chaotic, as a seductive and sexual place of pure experience, spirituality and true self-knowledge, with sinewy yet docile natives. If I had a penny for every time a (usually white and almost always North American or European) person has gushed to me about how much they love India because they found God or themselves there/how it was wild and filthy and beautiful all at the same time, I’d have a serious amount of change by now.”

Illustration by Brian Rea

NY Times’ Modern Love: “Welcomed With Open Arms in Mumbai”, by May Jeong (Illustration: Brian Rea/NY Times)

Again, it reminds us of how exhibitions at the Asian Art Museum operate, reinforcing the Orientalist notion of absolute difference between our all-too-generic workaday West and the exotic East:

“Though Jeong writes about the difference in a way that doesn’t malign it, what is of utmost importance here is that the separateness of the two domains is upheld and reinforced, thus leaving the imperial ideology underpinning Orientalism untouched.”

Much like the museum, this Asian Canadian Westerner asserts that she can transcend this difference, but instead, as Surie von Czechowski points out (emphasis added), “ends up reaffirming the notion of the essential, unchanging, and unchangeable difference…”

PHANTOMS wall text

Reframing the Contemporary as Ancient, Immutable, “Tradition” of Oriental Otherness: actual text on wall at museum

It’s very much how, with the current PHANTOMS OF ASIA exhibition, the Asian Art Museum reaffirms this same characteristic immutability of absolute difference by re-framing the contemporary by forcing it into a context of pre-modern antiquity, under the euphemisms of “Asian Tradition” and “Contemporary Awakens the Past.”

We’ve left the really good stuff by Surie von Czechowski about Jeong’s seething “Orientalist and Romantic notions of sexuality, pleasure, and purity” for you to read first hand at Racialicious, highly recommended.

Selling the Spiritual:  "Ancient Oriental Wisdom," for sale at the museum gift shop

Selling the Spiritual: “Ancient Oriental Wisdom,” for sale at the museum gift shop


“Do US Museums have looted Asian Artifacts?”

29 07 2012

Via ArtsJournal:  “Do US Museums have looted Asian Artifacts? Feds Want To Know

“Federal authorities are asking American museums to scrutinize their collections for items that they have obtained from a veteran Manhattan art dealer now accused of possessing antiquities stolen from India and other countries.”

The New York Times 07/28/12

The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco may not be named in the above-linked NY Times article as a recipient of objects from accused art dealer Subhash Kapoor, but has indeed been named as such in his bio (pdf) and on the Art of the World website (now shut down).

Federal agents in Manhattan seizing statues linked to Subhash Kapoor.

Federal agents in Manhattan seizing statues linked to Subhash Kapoor. (US Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, via NY Times)

It’s worth recalling that while the lack of provenance of many of the objects in Asian antiquity collections of individuals such as Norton Simon in Pasadena, Avery Brundage at “The Asian”, and John D. Rockefeller III at Asia Society in New York is well noted, the question of illicit excavation does not apply to objects in collections formed before 1970.

This is thanks to UNESCO’s “Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illlicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property,” which is more concerned with “antiquities that have no provenance and first came to light since 1970, the date of the UNESCO convention.

In other words, there’s a statute of limitations on stolen or looted Asian art that only goes back to 1970.  Colonialism, even from the mid-20th century, gets a pass.  How does that work?

Even at that, UK did not sign on to the 1970 convention until 2003, Switzerland 2004, and as of 2006, Germany, Denmark, and Holland had yet to ratify.

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