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Envisioning Oman: Orientalism in Art

Lecture by Hilal al-Hajri

Edward Said's Orientalism is one of the most ground-breaking treatises in post-colonial studies. Since its publication in 1978, this controversial work has had a growing influence on different fields in humanities and social sciences such as colonial theory, feminism, anthropology, history, geography, travel literature, tourism and art.

In view of this intellectual context, it could be said that fine arts played a clear and direct role in promoting colonialism. This was particularly evident after the French campaign in Egypt in 1798. British, French, and American military campaigns brought a number of artists who took upon themselves to picture the Eastern peoples in general, and the Arabs in particular as different exotic objects to be tamed and "civilized". There was a fertile ground for accepting such ideas as Western creative arts had already depicted the oriental man as a deviant, heathen and bohemian immersed in sex and pleasures, surrounded by maids and slaves. The last image may has come as a result of "Thousand and One Nights", translated by the French orientalist Antoine Galland in the beginning of the eighteenth century, as it had magical effect on most Western artists and writers.

Taking its cues from Orientalist theory of Edward Said, this project deals with oriental themes implied by Western drawings and paintings related to Oman, as a place, people, and culture. From the Portuguese colonization of Oman in 1507 to the late twentieth century, an art discourse on Oman has developed.

The goal of this project is to explore the images of Oman developed within the works of Western artists. In their representations, I locate Oman as a place, a people and a culture. Precisely, I am interested in looking at their attitudes, both positive and negative, to every aspect of life in Oman. I also hope to contribute to the literary criticism of Western discourse on the Middle East with a different perspective. Unlike Edward Said and his advocates, who homogenize Western discourse on the Middle East, in my project I propose that Western fine art on Oman is much more heterogeneous, ambiguous and discontinuous. My project argues that these works are neither homogenously biased nor impartial, but imply a mixture of diverse attitudes, depending on many factors such as the artists' background, motive of visit, time of visit, and kind of people encountered. The gap of knowledge that this project undertakes to fill is that most of the Western drawings and paintings related to Oman have not been studied in any context.

Hilal al-Hajri is an Omani poet and academic. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Warwick in 2004, with a thesis on British travelers to Oman. He was Head of the Department of Arabic Language and Literature, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Sultan Qaboos University (2011 to 2014), Director General of Literature, Ministry of Heritage and Culture (2015 to May 2018). Currently, he is an independent researcher.  Some of his published works include: British Travel-Writing on Oman: Orientalism Reappraised (Oxford, Bern: Peter Lang, 2006) (in English); Lyrical Prosody: A New Project For Teaching Arabic Meters (Muscat: Ministry of Heritage and Culture, 2006) (in Arabic); and The Lure of the Unknown: Oman in English Literature (Beirut: Dar Al-Intishar, 2010) (in Arabic). His research interests include: travel writing, Orientalism, comparative literature, and Arabic prosody.

The lecture will be held in a hybrid format. For participation on site, a registration is not necessary. To participate via zoom, please register here: https://us06web.zoom.us/meeting/register/tZYofuqprTMuHNP1mvM7My7ZjMHKrIghcKTg