Part Four: Odalisques

The myths surrounding the harem and its female slaves
focusing on Odalisques

Part Four. The complexity of Odalisque portrayals

A. The contradictions of Odalisques in 19th-century depictions

For the majority of modern history, Western men had a monopoly on representing Eastern Muslim women. It can be argued that this ascendancy permitted the West to have control over the way Muslim women were considered. One of the most depicted motifs in Orientalism is the Odalisque. In part three, multiple Odalisque paintings were analysed, and it can be said that the white female nudes depicted are understood as sex slaves in a harem. For the purpose of this study, it is important to challenge the veracity of representing Odalisques as white sex slaves.

1. What is known of the role of Odalisques?

The meaning and role of an Odalisque are complex to define. Sources differ depending on time and location, and it is difficult to assign a definition to the term. What can be certain is that the word derives from the Turk odalık, meaning chambermaid. It is believed the role of Odalisques were to serve the ladies of the harem, under the patronage of the Sultan’s mother. They were to remain virgins and were never seen by the Sultan himself. However, testimonies differ. Olivier describes Odalisques in Voyage dans l’Empire Ottoman, l’Égypte et la Perse (1800) as being ‘les autres esclaves’, in contrast with concubines and sex slaves. He points out that ‘si l’une d’entre elle se retrouvait enceinte, elle était traitée avec le plus grand soin’. The idea of an Odalisque getting pregnant, by the Sultan as he later points out, is contradicting with the roles established above. Hamilton wrote in 1822 that Odalisques were indeed slaves of the household. However, she insists that ‘they are by no means condemned to a state of hopeless or interminable virginity’. Unlike Olivier, Hamilton claims that Odalisques did not have encounters with the Sultan, but were sought in marriage by officers of states, governors of provinces or ‘by all who are stimulated by ambition to aspire at preferment or who seek security under the patronage of the sultanas’. The author indicates that the ambition and seeking of security are motivated by the influence the women of the harem had in public affairs, the attribution of favours as well as direct punishments. Hamilton can be said to validate previous historical accounts on the harem and its dynamics. Her account does, however, add to the contradictions about what an Odalisque is. These two primary sources exemplify the contradictory information available regarding the roles of Odalisques.

2. What does the choice of depicting Circassian slaves mean?

Odalisque paintings traditionally depict women of fair complexions, sometimes blonde with blue eyes. These women can be argued to resemble and represent Circassian women. It has been said by Campbell and Elbourne that Circassians and white slave girls were extremely rare, expensive and confined to the harems of the richest, most of the time even exclusively those of the rulers. Circassian women were described as having an ashen ivory complexion, blond hair, blue eyes and were imported from what is today Iran. DelPlato has argued that Westerners thought of Circassians as Christians because they were white when they were actually Muslim since the 6th-century. In part three, Leeks’ theory that the culture of voyeurism leads to an assortment of control and ultimately, punishment or saving was mentioned. With the depiction of women who resembled Western women in skin complexion and could be, through the prism of colourism, thought of as Christian, the Western man can be argued to have desired to obtain the status of the saviour. As Leeks points out, this relates to voyeurism and results in sexual gratification. Moreover, Circassian women fit in European standards of beauty, and it can thus be said that they were considered acceptable to desire and lust over.

The choice of using the inaccurate term of Odalisques to depict sex slaves and that of depicting the slaves that are fewer in number, and thus do not represent the vast majority of Eastern Muslim women, and that fit European standards of beauty was thus made by 19th- century Orientalist painters. It can be argued that this realisation further proves the motives behind Odalisque paintings were of sexual gratification and objectification of the Muslim women, rather than an ethnographical or scientific project.

B. Why were Odalisques chosen to represent the Orient?

1. Were the depictions of the harem and its female slaves used for imperialist and colonialist propaganda?

Orientalism in the arts in the 19th-century has been described as being intimately bound with the imperial project. Furthermore, Stranges reports the movement as a masculinist, colonialist discourse of domination. It is clear that sexuality and the oppression of women appealed to the West. It can be said that it is partially for its political aspect. Indeed, McLeod has argued that colonialism could not occur without a set of beliefs held to justify the possession and occupation of lands. Following this argument, Mitchell believes the harem was part of that set of beliefs and thus the colonial program. The harem became a representation of the necessity for the West to organise and discipline the East, by continuously depicting it as chaotic, corrupted and a place of segregation. In summary, it can be argued that depictions of the harems not only served as a fantasy and was a way to ignite the erotic imagination, it also permitted Europeans to condemn the harem, its social organisation and therefore question Muslim culture. The choice to depict female sex slaves and more precisely Odalisques can be said to have provided the West with leverage to criticise Islam through the treatment of its women, implying that their role was solely to satisfy the sexual desire of one man and live in idleness. It can thus be suggested that depictions of the harem and its female slaves were used for imperialist and colonialist purposes and served its propagandas.

2. Can the choice be partially explained by societal pressure in the West?

To explain the choice of depicting Odalisques, it can be considered important to explore societal pressure in the West in the 19th-century. Societal norms at the time can be explained by using the example of the reception of Manet’s Olympia (1863) (Fig.15).

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 15. Olympia, Édouard Manet, 1863, Musée d’Orsay

The female nude depicted is a prostitute having been described as possessing a sexualised body that is offered to the viewer. The nude is neither a Neoclassical representation nor an Odalisque, which is the cause of the indignation it resulted in when it was exhibited in the Salon in 1865. Indeed, nudes were socially acceptable when a distance existed, either geographical or temporal. Neoclassical nudes represented a removed mythological setting, Orientalism, on the other hand, depicted a place removed from contemporary Western surroundings. By considering Oriental women as inferior and at the disposal of men, these depictions allowed for representation of erotic scenes without the restraints of society. Depictions of Odalisques were desirable to Western viewers and buyers of the 19th-century for they were recognisable by their subject matter and motifs but unattainable due to geographical and smilingly different cultural aspects. By depicting what was considered of Western women as sexually depraved, the nudes contribute to producing a glamorised vision of 19th-century society through its moral superiority. These representations are symptomatic of the existence of oppressive social codes that can only be broken by creating fantasies around a society, according to Kabbani, considered lower than.

The choice of depicting Odalisques can therefore be attributed to both imperialist and colonialist interests and were an opportunity to by-pass established Western norms. Having acknowledged the reasons behind this choice, it can be argued that they give an explanation for the lack of interest in scientific and ethnographical accuracy and overall interest, for both the artists and the viewers in the 19th-century.

C. The impact of Odalisque depictions

1. How did Orientalism achieve its impact?

In order to examine the extent of the impact of Odalisque depictions, it is necessary to understand how such an impact can be achieved, to begin with. Foucault argues that knowledge is shaped by the production of discourse, which in turns props up the power structure of societies. The Western man viewpoint has been unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, and the argument can be extended more generally to art and society. Therefore, the creation of the colonialist and imperialist discourse of Islam, including through its depictions by the West, has shaped the knowledge of the Orient. Zeiny has argued the depictions of harems, female slaves and ultimately Odalisques constitute visual imperialism, meaning the mind becomes occupied by an ideology through the use of selective imagery. The ideology at play here is colonialism and the belief of Western superiority. Orientalism thus can be said to have impacted art and society through this ideology, that became considered knowledge and, in consequence, was seen as factual.

2. What do Orientalist postcards of the 20th-century reveal?

At the turn of the century in France, mainly between 1900-1914, postcards became both a media of communication and collectable objects. The infatuation with postcards in these years led to the creation of multiple journals that specialised in teaching the best way to collect them, such as La Gazette Cartophile. The popular and extensive market was dominated by the government-funded company Neurdein Frères, abbreviated to ND. The postcards were divided into two types, the views and landscapes, on the one hand, the types and costumes on the other. Types and costumes postcards were classified according to work and race. Similarly, to 19th-century Odalisque paintings, the pseudo-ethnographic style of the postcards can be said to have allowed for depictions of eroticism. It can be observed that the most interesting aspect of these postcards is their resemblance with Orientalist paintings. Mauresques (c.1905) (Fig.16), depicts three Moorish women.

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 16. Mauresques, c.1905, Picture from Malek Alloula’s The Colonial Harem, page 88.

It can be said that the light-skinned woman, her blouse opened, exposing her breast, and her legs spread apart, appears more revealed than the other women. As established earlier in this part, women closer to European beauty standards were seen as more desirable, and it can be hypothesised that this is why the darker women are more fully clothed. The picture can be argued to closely resemble Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger (1834) (Fig.17).

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 17. Femmes d’Alger, Eugène Delacroix, 1834, Musée du Louvre

Alloula supports this theory by noting that most postcards depicting Muslim women were inspired by Orientalist paintings of the previous century. In part three, this study explored the ways in which Western racial hierarchy found itself in harem paintings. In Mauresques, it can thus be argued that the darker women represent the dark-skinned slave of Femmes d’Alger, while the light-skinned woman stands as the desirable concubines depicted on the foreground of the painting. These postcards, as the paintings explored in part three, were, are imaginative creations. Indeed, Alloula reveals that photographers paid models from the margin of society, often prostitutes, to represent the Algerian women. Those photographers provided the clothes and instructed on the poses. Therefore, the postcards, even though they are photographs, can be said not to represent reality. With Orientalist postcards of the 20th-century, it can thus be argued that the impact of 19th-century depictions was carried into the medium of photography, which gave ethnographical and scientific credit to both the fantasies and the discourses, raising them to a status of facts and knowledge. It can be said that the medium changed, but the ideologies were carried into the 20th-century.

3. What are the repercussions on Muslim women in the 21st century?

Since the term Orientalism was coined in 1978, an abundance has been written about the movement, both regarding its existence in the arts and in society, and an awareness of colonial and imperial modes of thinking developed. However, Orientalist ideology can be said to still have an impact on Muslim women in the 21th-century, as Orientalist visions of Muslim women still stand. For this study, it seems essential to provide examples of Muslim artists in order to analyse their relationship to Orientalism. Moroccan photographer Essaydi is quoted in 2013 saying that ‘the distorted lens of Orientalism has affected how people in the Arab world see themselves’. The artist describes harem paintings as having contained women within a space literally and metaphorically, bounding them by walls and under the control of men. Essaydi declares that although her photographs express her personal history, they can be taken as reflections on the life of Arab women in general. The models in her work are said to agree to participate in order to contribute to the greater emancipation of Muslim women. Essaydi continues:

‘I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists. (…) Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition’.

La Grande Odalisque (2008) (Fig.18), one of the many harem paintings-inspired photographs she has taken, has been described as a way for the artist to take back ownership of Muslim women depictions.

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 18. La Grande Odalisque, Lalla A. Essaydi, 2008, Musée Ingres Bourdelle

The writings on the model describe the relationship between the photographer and the model, using henna. It can be argued that by giving the model a story, one of female to female friendship, Essaydi humanises her in a way Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque did not. The artist hints at a life the model has outside of the piece, while it can be said that Ingres’ painting confines his Odalisque to the setting of the harem and the daily occurrence of waiting for her master. Through her photographs, it can be said that Essaydi reclaims a medium that served Orientalist purposes in the beginning of the 20th-century, and challenges stereotypes about Muslim Women that took their roots in 19th-century Odalisque paintings.

Moledina is another artist who has set to disrupt the stereotypes created by Orientalism. Similarly, to Essaydi’s La Grande Odalisque, her tapestry Not Your Harem Girl (2018) (Fig.19) is inspired by Ingres’ infamous painting. Moledina used the head and legs of the original La Grande Odalisque and had them circle the words ‘not your harem girl’ (Fig.20).

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 19. Not Your Harem Girl, Farwa Moledina, 2018, Aisha Khalid Studios

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 20. Close-up of Not Your Harem Girl, Farwa Moledina, 2018, Aisha Khalid Studios

The artist states that the textile, resembling Islamic geometric art, and the text constitutes an act of defiance in order to challenge Western male perceptions of Muslim women, not only in the 19th-century but also nowadays. With Not Your Harem Girl, alongside her sublimation print Not Your Fantasy (2019) (Fig.21), Moledina’s work can be said to have been heavily influenced by the repercussions of Orientalism.

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 21. Not Your Fantasy, Farwa Moledina, 2019, Exhibited at The Row during the Coventry Biennial 2019, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Part Four: Odalisques

Figure 22. Not Your Fantasy, Farwa Moledina, 2019, Exhibited at The Row during the Coventry Biennial 2019, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Like Essaydi, Moledina acknowledges and confronts the stereotypes about Muslim women. Moreover, Not Your Fantasy questions the prevalence of Orientalism in society. Earlier in part four, this study explored the choice to depict white Circassian women in Odalisque paintings. Moledina describes the lack of colour in her textile print as crucial, as it not only ‘negates all exotic and erotic Orientalist stereotypes’ but it also ‘creations notions of figuratively pale reproductions of Muslim women within Orientalist paintings.’ Compared to the 19th and 20th-century, Muslim female artists nowadays have the freedom of expressing themselves they once lacked to challenge previous depictions and, more importantly, to finally be able to talk for themselves, and not through the prism of Western men and Western male artists. Concerned with the idea of Muslim women speaking for themselves, questions were asked to artist Moledina directly for the purpose of this study. While acknowledging she does not have historical expertise on the topic, the artist shares her personal experience. She suggests that Muslim women are still objectified and seen as having no agency. Nuancing Essaydi’s strong statement that Orientalism has had a direct impact on how the Arab world sees itself, Moledina asserts that:

‘Questioning whether Orientalist paintings have had an impact on how Muslim women view themselves suggest that we view ourselves through the lens of the white man, to begin with – we don’t! We don’t form our identities by examining what the white man has assumed for us or based on paintings we see in galleries; it is so much more nuanced than that.’

However, she acknowledges that lived experiences by Muslim women include the effects and consequences of colonisation and imperialism, which Orientalist paintings served to spread. It can be argued that Orientalism and Odalisque paintings have significantly shaped the ideas and stereotypes regarding Muslim women in the West while providing imperialism and colonialism a support that affects the lives of Muslim women to this day.

Recommend0 recommendationsPublished in Art, The Myths Surrounding the Harem and its Female Slaves

More Articles

Ravi Shah

Art Attaché Articles Guide

Write an Article today! Come see how easy it is for you to get involved. This guide will show you how to write your articles on Art Attache.

Read More »
Ravi Shah

The NEW Rise of the Curator

Emerging out of this global crisis is a new age for the consumption of Art culture. Covid-19 has hit the art industry hard both in sales and exhibitions however there is light at the end of the tunnel…

Read More »