Western Orientalism

Evelyn Pei


Since the time of colonialism, the West has always held a fascination for the Orient.  The Orient, a seemingly mystical place with its people shrouded in mystery, seemed so exotic and so foreign compared to the world of the Westerners.   Its people possessed different ways of life, and the West, unable to accept that different people lead different lives, labeled the Orient as the ‘Other’.  Westerners painted their own image of Asia and its people through the lens of orientalism and primitivism.  Primitivism was the notion that non-Western societies were completely uncivilized and barbaric in comparison to the civilized, high society of the West.  On the other hand, there was also orientalism, which characterized non-Western states as not entirely uncivilized and wild, but still not as advanced and diligent as Western societies.  Through the ideas of orientalism and primitivism, stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans began to form and would continue to be common thought within American society to this day.

The ideas of orientalism and primitivism permeated through every inch of Western society, even artists and the media began to view the East through this highly distorted view.    Modern art was one area that began to see a large influence from orientalism and primitivism.  Famous and well renowned artists all depicted the East and Middle East with the stereotypes formulated from these exaggerated notions.  Artists, such as Paul Gaugin, Eugene Delacroix, and even Pablo Picasso, portrayed their Oriental subjects as a morally decrepit and uncivilized society.  These stereotypes of the mystical Orient were so prevalent and so heavily portrayed within the media that not only did the non-Asian Americans begin to believe it, even the Asian Americans themselves started to.

How can Asian Americans begin to change the way other Americans view them when these stereotypes and this discrimination are on the institutional level?  When everyone, an entire nation and all its inhabitants, believes that Asian Americans are different, how can Asian Americans not start to believe that they are indeed different also?  How can we even begin to correct this as a nation?  When the foundation of our nation’s structure is built upon discrimination and stereotypes, where can we start?  Educating the nation and making people aware of these disparities are the only ways we can.  Many Asian American artists have begun to counter the ideal Western image society holds.  Artists, like Marlon Fuentes, Allan deSouza, Pipo, and Tomie Arai, strive to disrupt the static notions of Orientalism and primitivism of Asians and Asian Americans through their work.  Though they indeed have made a slight impact on societal views, America still has a long way to go before the veil can be lifted.


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