Voyeurism has been a part of art ever since the ancient Greeks depicted Aphrodite at her bath centuries before the common era. Later orientalist incarnations of voyeuristic art introduced myths that the East was the home of hyper-sexuality, irrationality and immorality. These mythis were confirmed through artists' imaginings women in seclusion. Since many women were indeed secluded in much of the Muslim world and inaccessible to outsiders, artist and writers portraying them filled in gaps with orientalist tropes and their own fantasies. Imagined spaces of seclusion like harems and baths mixed elements of violence, polygamy, slavery, and homosexual and interracial sexuality.
It is important to note that polygamy, slavery and concubinage did exist. However, we must also understand that artists and writers handed down their own interpretations to us colored by the fantasies and biases that prevailed in their time. Consider the painting by Jean Leon Gerome in the gallery at the very top of this page. A black slave or concubine accompanies a white slave or concubine in the Harem baths. Notice one woman’s hand suggestively placed at the small of the others back. Now examine Gerome's painting of the woman being bathed just above this section. Notice the detail he put into the setting and think about how reality meets fantasy in this image.
For the 19th century observer these paintings would confirm the deviance of homosexual and interracial sexuality thought prevalent in decadent and immoral Eastern societies. The ‘impropriety’ suggested in the scene was also meant to excite the observer. So these paintings were lurid entertainment and social commentary at the same time.
Jean Leon Gerome
Facts Behind the Myth
But the vast royal Harems where many orientalist paintings were set were in fact quite rare. Islamic law dictates that men were allowed four wives and not thousands. But elites were occasionally able to sidestep this law. Some men had enough wealth to purchase female slaves who served as domestics and concubines. For the most part he reality of female seclusion in the Saharan world was decidedly less lavish than the Gerome's depiction of the Revan Kiosk featured above.
In the large Harems of rulers women were not kept simply to satisfy the Sultan. Perhaps many did, but, these female slaves were also held so rulers could marry them off to allies and strengthen political alliances. For example, in the seventeenth century the Moroccan ruler Mulay Isma’il kept a large Harem of female slaves to marry to the slave soldiers he imported from Sub-Saharan Africa. Politically these marriages were very important. Mulay Isma’il's powerful slave army underpinned his authority and marrying them to slave women ensured their loyalty.
Women who were concubines to powerful men were sometimes able to use their proximity to rulers to gain wealth and power. These stories are old. For example, the biblical heroine Ester used her position in the Harem to save Jews living in Persia from annihilation at the hands of Haman. The 19th century ruler Mulay Hassan was the son of a Hausa slave, from northern Nigeria. While slave women who bore royal offspring certainly gained power and prestige, we should remember that they were rare exceptions and that for most women life in the harem was one of abject servitude.
The Colonial Gaze
So if harems and sexual slavery were facts of history why should we be concerned that artists exercised a little imagination in their portraits of these scenes? The danger of the orientalist trends in Western thought criticized by Said is that fictions bleed into ‘official knowledge’ about Muslims. Consider the two 19th century orientalist photographs featured in this unit. They were printing on post cards and sold throughout France. Remember that people at this time did not have anything close to the same kind of access to information that we now enjoy. For folks in the nineteenth century printed photography was still a new way of relating information to people.
These postcards became very popular and for many people they represented a ‘reliable’ source of information about what the women who lived in the colony of Algeria were like. The fact that they were photos taken by people in the colony gave them authenticity. For example the photo of the women above is supposed to be an ethnographic photo of traditional dancers. It presents itself as a photo that informs people about the traditions and culture of the women.
But the women in these photographs were told how to pose. They were placed in certain scenes and in some cases given costumes. So the information is not really as authentic as one might think. Take a moment to look at the women lounging together in the photo at the very top of the page and compare it to the paintings in this section. You will see that some of the things the photographers are saying about women in the Algerian colony echo themes in earlier harem paintings.