Orientalism and Reframing the Idea of the Other

Alyse Blachly

Western dependence on “The Orient” and “The Other,” described by Machida as “a mirror against which the West envisioned and reinforced its collective sense of self” (57) is similar to Hegel’s description of self-consciousness. His idea is that self-consciousness cannot exist in a vacuum, but rather you need someone else to confirm and shine back your own identity and sense of self. For example, a doctor’s sense of authority and self-worth is very much based in the fact that the patient exists. In the Hegelian master-slave relationship, the master cannot exist without the slave. While the slave is subordinated, one could argue that he is more powerful since he controls the self-consciousness of the master.  The very identity of the other, in any context, is essential in how we view ourselves. This is a natural human response. Where the problem lies is when we tear down someone else’s identity in order to build up our own. This is where orientalism and primitism come into play.

When we take this idea of the other shaping our identity and apply it to groups of people who identify with each other based on a uniting factor, idealism and cultural context plays a big role. While Machida talks about how the Orient does not consist of a single geographical area, but is only based on changing Western perceptions, we must also realize that the idea of “The West” is also loosely based on these perceptions. When the West claims something as part of its culture or identifying values, it no longer becomes exotic or primitive and at the same time cannot be claimed by the East/Orient. When the West does not identify with something it is exotic, primitive, or childlike, belonging to the Orient.

Historically, Western art has been highly Anglicized, Christianized, while at the same time de-humanized “the other.” Four Asian artists, discussed in Chapter 2 of Machida’s Unsettled Visions, create work that challenges and re-contextualizes the notion of the other and the Orient. They take Western perception and representation of Asians and employ a form of dramatic irony or “talking back.” Allan deSouza’s Coconut Chutney series, for example, I found especially effective. His theory is that one must “directly confront the mechanisms of representation by which Orientalism is produced” (78). With this in mind, he uses certain visual characteristics that are commonly associated with “Indianess” in the West. Turbans, bright colors, the Taj Mahal, elephants, Aladin, and carnivalesque images fill his prints, playing off the fantasy and spectacle of the perception the West has of Indians and the Orient. While it would seem to an unsuspecting viewer of his work that he is perpetuating this representation of India, he is actually being ironic—using doubleness to unite people who understand his message of irony, while striking back at those who simply accept this representation as truth. Fuentes does something similar with Bontoc Eulogy, mocking and analyzing the ways in which ethological studies and anthropological spectacle of “the other” were taken as scientific fact. Pipo and Arai use a slightly different technique. They choose to give a face to Asians to combat the uniform or dehumanizing way in which they are viewed. While Asians are viewed in a certain framework of pop-cultural references, politics and war, they choose to re-frame this identity. In Pipo’s case he does this by inserting himself directly into classic Biblical, popular western works, while Arai contrasts the actual Chinese and Japanese individuals with a mass stereotypical image/media representation. By doing this, these artists not only challenge the representations of Asians in dominant Western culture, but challenge the fact that such rigid classifications of West/European and Orient/East exist.


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