Islamic Art has historically been deemed to be decorative or ornamental rather than "fine art" and decorative arts have been considered “minor” through the hierarchical values inherent in Western Art History. Artists working within Islamic Art created work that was absent of figures, instead employing elements of sacred geometrical patterns and calligraphy to explore spirituality and the divine. However, these approaches have seldom been revered within the realm of fine art and are instead considered simply decorative objects.
In the same vein, the ‘exotic’ Muslim woman has frequently been a commodity of objectification in Western society. Most often depicted as ‘other’, and surrounded by an air of mystery and allure, the West’s obsession with the Eastern woman is as evident now as it was during the 19th century. In the 19th century, a time of colonization and exploration for the West, images of women became a popular tool for the subordination of the feminine voice within the masculine narrative. The introduction of the harem to the West’s vision of the Orient was depicted as a space solely for male pleasure. Inhabiting the harem, the Muslim woman becomes stripped of her power and all other liberties, eventually becoming an obedient, submissive object who is seen as innately sexual. From Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque to Delacroix’ The Women of Algiers in their Apartment paintings, racialized and sexualized images of Muslim women became dominant and esteemed in Western culture, evolving from previous literary representations. Orientalism – the term coined by Edward Said to describe the West’s ideology and tradition of misrepresentation of the East – has had a radical effect on the way in which the Muslim woman is depicted in western art, literature and media.
Disorienting Orientalism layers Orientalist paintings, featuring women in highly sexualized and compromising manners, with hand-cut cut-outs of sacred geometric patterns to disrupt and challenge the way the Muslim woman has been depicted while subverting the inherently patriarchal colonial gaze.
Western ascendancy – the assumption that Western culture is inherently superior to all other cultures – is deeply rooted in the issue of the exoticization of Muslim women and the disparagement of traditional Islamic Art. Bringing forth the sacred elements of Islamic Art as a way to explore the potential for ornament to transcend decorative Fatemi poses questions around how, and in what way can we look at Islamic Art as fine art? Does it take using these Western Orientalist images to elevate Islamic shapes and patterns from decorative to fine art? And how do these objects function differently than their historical references?