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Tydskrif vir Letterkunde

On-line version ISSN 2309-9070
Print version ISSN 0041-476X

Tydskr. letterkd. vol.45 n.1 Pretoria Jan. 2008


Oriental Africa



Hester du Plessis

Hester du Plessis is a Senior Researcher in the Faculty of Art, Design and Architecture, University of Johannesburg, South Africa and holds a Research Chair in Design Education at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad, Gujarat, India. E-mail:




Arab culture and the religion of Islam permeated the traditions and customs of the African sub-Sahara for centuries. When the early colonizers from Europe arrived in Africa they encountered these influences and spontaneously perceived the African cultures to be ideologically hybridized and more compatible with Islam than with the ideologies of the west. This difference progressively endorsed a perception of Africa and the east being "exotic" and was as such depicted in early paintings and writings. This depiction contributed to a cultural misunderstanding of Africa and facilitated colonialism. This article briefly explores some of the facets of these early texts and paintings. In the first place the scripts by early Muslim scholars, who critically analyzed early western perceptions, were discussed against the textual interpretation of east-west perceptions such as the construction of "the other". Secondly, the travel writers and painters between 1860 and 1 930, who created a visual embodiment of the exotic, were discussed against the politics behind the French Realist movement that developed in France during that same period. This included the construction of a perception of exoticness as represented by literature descriptions and visual art depictions of the women of the Orient. These perceptions rendered Africa as oriental with African subjects depicted as "exotic others".

Key words: Oriental Art, Africa, Orientalism, cultural perceptions



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1. Benjamin (2003: 11) made reference to Baudelaire's "The salon of 1859".

2. Such ideas are still current. A fine example comes from John Barth's The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1992) discussed in Sardar (1998: 177) when the main character came across an Arab restaurant it provoked an extremely negative notion of "Islam" such as "an Ingres harem scene, muskmarine vulva", "copper-fleeced armpits" and "unprecedently sustained erections".

3. There was nothing new about the term as such and, according to Said (1995), it was regularly used to refer to scholars of the Near and Middle East.


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