It is often claimed that the power of visual representation lies in its ability to communicate across geographical and linguistic barriers. However, the complexities of cultural difference often result in misinterpretations and misrepresentations. The image plays an active role in constructing collective narratives as the increasingly significant form of 21st century communication. Trapped in a complex system of culture, power, and access, images complicate the telling of the story.

This exhibition explores the wide gaps that continue to exist between popular narratives of the Middle East and the realities of intricately nuanced cultures. From painting to photography, this exhibit examines the romanticized vision that colors historic and contemporary representations of the Middle East and traces the ways in which generalizations, fabrications, and stereotypes continue to widen the distance between two hemispheres.

Reorient investigates the power of representation by contrasting these images with narratives of individuals that confront adversity through resistance and resilience. These range from artworks by Middle Eastern artists who defy labels to depictions of individuals trying to carve out moments of normalcy despite the flux and chaos of their environment. By creating a dialectic between Resistance and Romanticism, this exhibit questions whether the search for a veritable East is Orientalist in and of itself.

Our Process

Reorient was born out of our mutual interest in highlighting narratives of personal resistance to romantic depictions of the Middle East. A lot has changed since Edward Said wrote his seminal book Orientalism in 1978. A succession of U.S.-fronted interventions in the Middle East have continued into the present day—from financial intervention in the Soviet-Afghan War, to direct interventions in the Gulf War and the ‘War on Terror.’ Because of this, the West is not exposed to idealized landscapes of the Middle East like it was two centuries ago; rather, there is an overexposure to images of violence.

The means of image circulation have changed as well. A few decades ago, the Middle East was shown to Western audiences exclusively through newsreels, television, and large-format magazines. At the start of the Gulf War, the battlefront for the first time was broadcast live to the world. And now, images can circulate through the internet more quickly than ever before, resulting in a flurry of fleeting Middle Eastern imagery. This phenomenon often produces viral images, such as the distressing 2015 photograph of the drowned Kurdish child, Alan Kurdi, that sparked awareness in the Western world of the Syrian refugee crisis—four long years after the start of the Syrian Civil War. In this oversaturated digital age, we felt it was important to not only examine the neo-Orientalist and romanticized tropes reproduced through the media, but to show a side not often seen through examining narratives of resistance in the Middle East.

It would be impossible to understand how Orientalism continues to exist today without first examining the foundations of Orientalist imagery. Therefore, it made the most sense to look at both historical and contemporary examples of Resistance and Romanticism, and thus, working primarily within the Five Colleges Collection, we decided to focus on objects ranging from the late 18th century to the contemporary moment. Romanticism looks at the multiple ways the West has exerted the gaze on an imagined ‘Orient,’ and Resistance shows the multiple ways in which these representations are challenged. We have specifically tried to focus on accounts that depict individual lives and personal narratives that get washed in the narratives of the collective. We acknowledge that this constructed binary is not absolute—but we do hope that our exhibition inspires more nuanced understandings and interactions between these ideas. For the purposes of our exhibit we decided to define the Middle East broadly, including North Africa and Pakistan. In titling our exhibit, we wanted a word that was both succinct and powerful and ultimately chose Reorient. Well into our curatorial process, we became aware that our exhibition shares a name with a stellar Middle Eastern arts and culture publication that also aims to change and diversify people’s understandings of the Middle East.

Further Thinking

…it is no coincidence that it was before the region was corrupted by these foreign influences that the Middle East… experienced a “golden age.” …in order to revive this glorious past one must purify the region from all the pernicious foreign influences and return to the original and uncorrupted form of society.1

-Morten Valbjørn

And when I finally got myself invited to a North Tehran party, I saw miniskirts and backless tops on braless young women in their mid-twenties and thirties, to say nothing of the heavy flirting and the dirty dancing. Even among the non-elite and working class, female friends and students of mine often made a point of shaking my hand (against convention), lifting their head scarves to reveal their hair, and even showing me cell-phone photos of themselves uncovered.2

-Brian T. Edwards

Hassan Hajjaj Rider 2010 Metallic Lambda Print on 3mm White Dibond 62.2h x 90.5w cm Taymour Grahne Gallery

Hassan Hajjaj
Metallic Lambda Print on 3mm White Dibond
62.2 cm x 90.5 cm
Taymour Grahne Gallery

One of the greatest difficulties in talking about the Middle East is that the term suggests a homogenous entity, glossing over variances of religion, language, and culture. However, this communicative disability is characteristic of contemporary discourse, perhaps all discourse on humanity—using language and knowledge which is inherently limited to speak of people, inherently complex. As a result, modernization has come to be synonymous with Westernization and the Middle East has come to be synonymous with Islam, and even religious oppression. While one cannot ignore the complexities and significant effect of either Western capitalism or religious orthodoxy in the region, it would be too naive to contemplate contemporary Middle Eastern culture with a simple binary of East vs. West.3

No matter how dominant, the principles of a collective stereotype are always contested by the spirit and intellect of its individuals. Culture after all is not a static identity but a site of performance for different conflicting identities that, depending on the situation, can reinforce or resist dominating ideologies—nationalist and globalist alike.4 Nothing exemplifies this better than the Middle East’s contemporary engagement with the internet.5 The capacity of the digital medium and the fluidity of its platform has created a paradigm shift for the way cultural objects, especially from the West, are consumed, processed, and reproduced. Here it is helpful to keep in mind that cultural objects change meaning as they enter new contexts, in this case the socio-political dynamic of the specific Middle Eastern region. Examples of this can be seen in the Iranian version of Shrek and the various fashion blogs of Middle Eastern women that display a stunning combination of traditional modesty and Western flair.6

Perhaps that is the key to understanding the tension between orthodox values, personal freedom, and manifestations of Western influence. The modernization and globalization of the Middle East is not so much a narrative of erasure as it is one of hybridization. While the East and the West may argue over the promise or peril of the West, Middle Eastern youth resist such labels by insisting on curating their own identity and by selectively adapting and blending elements not just from the West, but the world.7

-Procheta M. Olson

1. Morten Valbjørn, “Culture in the Middle East: The ‘Western Question’ and the Sovereignty of Post-imperial States in the Middle East,” in Sovereignty After Empire: Comparing the Middle East and Central Asia, ed. Sally N. Cummings and Raymond Hinnebusch (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press: 2011), 225.
2.Brian T. Edwards, “Watching Shrek In Tehran: The Seen And The Unseen In Iranian Cinema,” in The Believer, 2010,
3.Valbjørn 225.
4. Mark LeVine, “Chaos and Globalization in the Middle East,” in Asian Journal of Social Science 33, no. 3 (2005), 394-411.
5. Karagueuzian and Badine, “Youth, Peace, and New Media in the Middle East,” in Anthropology of the Middle East and North Africa: Into the New Millenium, ed. Sherine Hafez and Susan Slyomovics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press: 2013), 301-22.
6.Brian T. Edwards, “American Culture in its Middle East circulation,” in On the Ground—New Directions in Middle East and North African Studies, Northwestern University of Qatar,; Beatrice Abillama, “Fashion in the Middle East,” in Fashionbi, October 21, 2015,
7. LeVine 399. For more, see Timothy Williams and Abeer Mohammed, “What Not to Wear, Baghdad-Style: Fashion Rules Begin to Change.” The New York Times, June 5, 2009, and Savas Arslan, “Projecting a Bridge for Youth: Islamic ‘Enlightenment’ versus Westernization in Turkish Cinema,” in Youth Culture in Global Cinema, ed. Timothy Shary and Alexandra Seibel (Austin: University of Texas Press: 2007), 157-72.

About the Curatorial Team

Nolan Boomer is a recent graduate of Oberlin College, where he studied English, architectural history, and creative writing. He has primarily worked in the fields of curation, artists’ books publishing, and public radio. He is from Los Angeles, CA and currently lives in New England.

Lauren Thompson is a graduate of the University of Texas at San Antonio, where she dual-majored in Art History and Anthropology. She has experience working with both public and private collections in the fields of curation, education, and collections management. She will be beginning her graduate studies in Art History this fall at Texas Christian University.

Camille Reynolds currently attends Hampshire College and concentrates in Art History and Middle Eastern Studies. She will soon be undertaking a senior thesis project looking at the intersections of art and politics in the Middle East through street art. She is Arab American and grew up between the United States and the Middle East. In the future, Camille hopes to work in curatorial field, primarily focusing on Arab art.

Theresa Mitchell is a recent graduate of Wellesley College, where she studied Anthropology and Art History. She has previous experience doing archival and curatorial work. She hopes to continue her studies looking at museums, objects, repatriation, identity and representation(s).

Amanda N. Bolin currently attends Smith College with a major in Art History and interest in Museum and Medieval Studies. As Reorient is her first major professional collaboration, she is looking forward to more curatorial work in the future.

Born and brought up in Calcutta, India, Procheta Mukherjee Olson is currently a Studio Arts graduate student at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. An enthusiastic visual storyteller, her work ranges between painting, drawing, video, and curating.

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