BEIRUT: Since its publication in 1978, Edward Said’s foundational study “Orientalism” has provoked controversy and debate in literary and social science circles over Western cultural production’s representations of the East and its political ramifications. One of the pillars of Said’s discussion is that portrayals of Muslim and Arab societies were derived from clichés and stereotypes, rather than realities.
Said took the title of his book from the label applied to the work some (usually 19th century) European writers and artists made during their states’ (usually imperialist) engagement with the cultures and polities of the Muslim world – Turkey and Egypt, North Africa, West and South Asia generally.
“200 Years of Peaceful Middle East,” an exhibition featuring a selection of antique lithographic prints common to this era, opens Friday at Beirut Souks. The show promises to display more than a hundred antique prints by such Orientalist artists as David Roberts, William Bartlett and Thomas Allom.
Serge Amiouni, who is curating the exhibition, has long been interested in antique prints, and owns a large private collection of them. “I have been collecting them since 1982,” he told The Daily Star. “These are not prints to decorate walls. These are [for] collectors.”
Amiouni decided to focus on antique depictions of Lebanon, Turkey, Palestine and Syria and has arranged the exhibition by country.
“There never had been any exhibition of that kind,” he said.
The most famous works in this exhibition are probably Roberts’ lithographs. Known for his travels to Egypt and the Holy Land (Palestine), Roberts spent 11 months in the region in 1838-39.
He collaborated with Belgian engraver Louis Haghe to create more than 240 lithographic depictions of the Middle East (including Lebanon). These works were bound and published in the 1850s under the title “The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia.”
The exhibition will also display a large assortment of works by English architect and topographical illustrator Thomas Allom, who made several trips to Turkey in 1838. Most of his illustrations were published in “Constantinople and the Scenery of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor.”
Of Allom’s extensive output, Amiouni has chosen to showcase his representations of the Palace of Said Pasha, the Bosporus, caravanserais, mosques and bazaars (including slave markets), with an eye to depicting the boisterous cultural of the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.
“[Antique prints] are geographical but also historical,” Amiouni observed. “Many cities have [since] changed names and [inhabitants]. Some cities ... on today’s Turkish-Syrian border used to belong to Syria, but now belong to Turkey.”
Between 1834 and 1854, Bartlett visited the Levant many times and was prolific in his representations of scenes from the Old and New Testaments. He traveled to Ottoman Egypt, Palestine and Lebanon, among others, and the sketches these landscapes inspired were reproduced in numerous steel engravings.
Amiouni’s exhibition includes some of Bartlett’s lithographic depictions of the coastal and mountain vistas of what is today Lebanon.
Modern-day Lebanon can be seen in antique prints of Tripoli, Batroun, Beirut, Sidon and the Qadisha Valley, Amiouni explained.
He said he possessed depictions of other rural landscapes that could provide material for a future exhibition, but not before next year.
“200 Years of Peaceful Middle East” intends to contribute to how the Middle East is perceived. More than an art history lesson, the curator hopes these works by 19th-century Western artists will offer insight into the region’s society, cultures and economic practices.
Amiouni is aware that a show such as this might attract older people, but he feels young people should come to learn something about the region’s history.
“An antique print has at least 150 years of age,” he said, “It is classical. It is beautiful.”
“200 Years of Peaceful Middle East” will be on display at the Beirut Souks from March 7-14. For more information, please call 03-278-712.