(The Turkish Bath, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, 1862-63. Louvre, Paris)

I spoke with Kate Rose Carrick who was interested in the contextualisation of my work in relation to 18th and 19th century paintings. We discussed some of my previous work and the connections I had made to the work of Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres “the Turkish Bath” a painting which covertly reinstates the stereotypes and exotic fantasies of the East. My paintings make reference to these images theoretically and through my choice of medium; adopting a similar approach to portray subject matter that is opposing to the nude fantasies observed in the work of Ingres. Enabling me to re-appropriate the image of the female body and the Muslim/Eastern woman, stripping it away from stereotypes from the past and modern day.

The Turkish Bath projects an over sexualised image and paints the women’s baths or the harem as a place of unrivalled erotic intensity. From implied lesbianism to dominating masculine voyeurism suggested by the shape of the circular canvas, insinuating that someone is peering through a peep hole or gap in a mashrabiya (intricate wooden screen).  Ingres based the painting on traveler accounts and writings by Lady Mary Wortley Montague. I thought I could cover up that which was uncovered or paint the hamam (Turkish bath) from the perspective of a muslim woman, and re-interpret the writings of Lady Mary Wortley Montague. Kate encouraged me to test out these ideas by drawing or painting over the images or creating a few collages however, as I carried out more research I discovered female artists at the time had already painted scenes of women’s baths more subjectively. French painter Henriette Browne painted A Visit, Harem Interior around the same time Ingres painted The Turkish Bath. Browns image provides us with a much more dignified view of the harem/hamam interior, with women fully clothed greeting each other with reverence; highlighting the phantasmagorical nature of paintings created by male artists at the time. Another reason I decided not to go forward with my initial idea is partly due to the fact that the harem is a place for women, with men restricted from entering. Therefore, painting the harem scene would open it up to the male gaze, which I would rather avoid. Instead through my work I’d like to take back ownership of the image being painted, as orientalists painted the “other” I am painting what I know best.

(Henriette Browne, A Visit: Harem Interior, Constantinople, 1860, oil on canvas, private collection)

“Try as they might to produce a mirror or reflection of the scene before them, orientalists like ethnographers are limited by ethnocentrism in attempting to gain knowledge about other cultures. Whatever their expertise the artists’ own culture invariably skews the image. The ‘oriental mirage’ in this sense is the impossibility of any artist obtaining full knowledge of the cultural other that forms his or her subject.” Benjamin, R. (2001). Orientalism. Sydney: The Art Gallery of New South Wales.

-Azraa Motala