In his seminal work of postcolonial theory, Orientalism, Edward Said points out that the notion of ‘the Orient’ is, at heart, “a European invention” and has been since antiquity. The West has always been defined in terms of its opposite, its exotic other, the East. Forty years after the 1978 publication of Said’s book, this still holds true today.
When we think of countries in the Orient of Said’s enquiry – places that these days we call Middle Eastern or Eastern European, or where Islam is the dominant religion – the images that spring to mind are still of the exotic other. We tend to picture either the buzzing cacophony of the spice bazaar and the cool tiled interiors and erotic possibilities of harems and bath houses as captured by 19th-century orientalist painters, or terrorists and the casualties of war: endless streams of refugees, cities reduced to rubble, children covered in dust and blood. In putting together the exhibition of paintings and drawings by Wendy Sharpe and Bernard Ollis, Elsewhere: Travels through Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Central Asia, Dr Sam Bowker hopes to present an alternative to these reductive and clichéd images.
The son of an Australian diplomat and a textile artist, Bowker spent a large part of his childhood and young adulthood in Jordan, Israel, Syria, Libya, and Egypt. Bowker now lectures in Islamic art at Charles Sturt University in Wagga Wagga, where the exhibition began its two-year tour of regional galleries in New South Wales. And, in part, it was conversations with his students that inspired Bowker to curate Elsewhere. “People in my classroom were saying that Syria was somewhere they had never seen, other than images of destruction,” he explains.
According to Bowker, the couple do this by presenting ordinary scenes of everyday life bursting with activity, not monumental timeless narratives. And crucially, as Bowker points out, “they are situating the limits of their knowledge within their work.”
Wendy Sharpe agrees. Although she and her partner Bernard Ollis have travelled extensively in the last decade through the regions named in the exhibition title, Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Central Asia, she says, “Obviously we are not setting ourselves up as experts. And we are also not even remotely attempting to speak on behalf of the actual people there.” Or as Ollis puts it, “Really, at the end of the day we were tourists. And we have taken on no other role other than that: we are telling stories about our experiences.”
“Drawing is a special thing,” Sharpe says, “because when you stop and draw – even if you don’t like the drawings, even if you throw them all away – just sitting there and really looking and spending time is so different than being a normal tourist and running through and taking photos.” Ollis adds, “Sometimes we spend days in places just sitting there drawing, and going back to the same places again. We are outsiders looking at the wonders around us.”
And while Sharpe and Ollis hit some tourist hotspots: ancient ruins, remarkable mosques and splendid palaces, their images are far from idealised or romantic. In fact several of them are of other tourists. And many of their paintings and drawings depict the beauty that can be found in a busy city street or a quiet café: mundane scenes played out by ordinary people. “They are acknowledging that the locals are living very different lives than the tourists who are there in transitory spaces doing spectacular things,” says Bowker. “It’s about that awareness that there is a duality between the visitor and the resident, and they are not trying to be the same thing.”
In one of her favourite stories from their widespread travels, Sharpe describes finding herself drawing in an Iranian mosque near a group of schoolgirls. “And I actually joined in with them, and we were all drawing and sort of looking at each other’s work,” she recalls, “and one of them said this beautiful thing which was, ‘We can talk to each other through drawing.’ She actually said that.” And this is the aim of Elsewhere: Travels through Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Central Asia: to use the nonverbal, multivalent language of art to speak to the people of Australia and give them an image of these countries that is more than the romanticised exotic or the horror of headlines.
Elsewhere: Travels through Morocco, Egypt, Syria, Iran and Central Asia
Griffith Regional Art Gallery
29 September—4 November
Elsewhere will also tour to Dubbo and Port Macquarie in 2019, and Tamworth in 2020.