'Oriental Bodies' and the Performance of Gender (Le 'Corps Oriental': Genre, Gestes et Regards) was a three-day conference held in Paris in December 2017. Taking place between Paris Diderot VII and École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), and utilising an interdisciplinary and transnational approach, this aimed to create a space within which productions of gender and race in visual culture could be challenged. While Paris Diderot VII is recognised today for pioneering transnational gender studies in France, and is more widely known as an important feminist and socialist school, EHESS is a research centre that offers courses in sociology, anthropology and ethnography. Together the two spaces set the scene for discussions around rethinking definitions of 'oriental' and 'gender', and exploring performance from the early modern period to the present day.
The combination of papers and evening dance performances presented as part of the programme reflected on the hierarchical structure of how the 'oriental' body has been perceived, questioning whether the 'oriental' body even exists and how this might be appropriately discussed in research today. Topics ranged from the fantasy of masculinity in Islamic State propaganda, Léon Bakst's ballet costumes, Muslim dance festivals in post-Ottoman Sarajevo, and the translation of Molière's plays into a modern Egyptian performance. Bringing together art historians, sociologists, ethnographers, dress historians, anthropologists and dance performers, the conference united various disciplines, and whilst there were no speakers who directly considered themselves as design historians, the in-depth object histories presented certainly related to the discipline.
Before the conference had even started, the programme's cover illustration (see above) stimulated interesting debate about the tone of the event. Making use of a 1852 costume sketch for a ballet production at the Opéra Garnier in Paris, this depicted a young boy wearing layers of golden embroidery and sarouel trousers, and holding a feathered fan. A group of participants already felt that the conference would focus on the Orientalist movement of the nineteenth-century and solely explore studies on the Ballet Russe. Though it is true that the event aimed to prompt valuable discussion around dance history, the papers veered more towards studies on the role of gender and performance in North African countries and former French colonies more broadly.
The conference offered the opportunity to discuss which elements of design perform these perceptions of gender and otherness in everyday life. Conference convenor Elizabeth Claire interviewed British art historian Reina Lewis on the topic 'Fashion, a Gesture of Faith' in relation to her recent book on modest Muslim fashion on social media platforms. These fashion blogs are a means of developing an awareness on the Islamic faith, and to make evident the variety of clothing styles that are often generalised in popular culture.
Lewis drew attention to the 2011 controversial French banning of niqabs in public places, and how clothing is a distinctive marker of one's own faith. This sparked debate in the audience about France's secularism and how Muslim women are still often viewed as 'other' in French society today based on their clothing. Questions were also raised about appropriate definitions to use as one speaker employed the term 'veil'. For some, the word 'veil' carries heavy Orientalist and colonial baggage, and generalised the rich culture of Muslim clothing and women's identities. Through her oral history research, Lewis emphasised the diversity in London alone, telling striking stories of young Salafi women in the East End wearing modest clothing as a form of empowerment, even when their mothers do not choose to do so.
A panel dedicated to dance and performance sparked the most debate. The papers here discussed Parisian 'oriental' dance classes, the feminisation of male performers in the nineteenth-century, and contemporary ballet shows reconstructing the harem space. Mariem Guellouz opened with a photograph of Nixon and Kissinger sat watching an Egyptian dancer whilst on a state visit. The photo became infamous for the rumours that surrounded it, but Guellouz was interested in its title referring to 'belly dancing'. Taken in 1974, the image recalls the way non-Western women's bodies have been depicted in visual culture, from performances of 'danse Arabe' in the Universal Exhibitions of 1889, to Flaubert's travel writing in Egypt.
Guellouz ended her paper with a short video entitled 'dansons ou la Marseillaise version dance du ventre' (Let's dance or the Marseillaise belly dancing edition). Artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah appears in front of the camera with the colours of the French flag around her waist. We only see her stomach and the French national anthem begins to play as she moves her hips to the music. The auditorium was filled with laughter, but Guellouz also reminds us that this is an ironic representation of othering oneself and the displacement of migrant communities in France. The work re-appropriates symbols of both France and the 'Orient' to reveal the persistence of neo-colonial exoticism, and challenges stereotypes whilst demonstrating the potential for French and Arab identities to live together without extreme power dynamics.
This led to the question of who exactly is the 'oriental' figure. Most attendees seemed to agree on the postcolonial view and Saidian's conception that 'oriental' is a past imperial term that no longer exists, but simply generalises a geographical space and people. Guellouz quickly interrupted this debate with a poignant remark on the nature of the conference: the event intended to have three convenors present for the three days; however, Prarthana Purkayastha from Royal Holloway was unable to attend as she was not permitted to board her train in London with her Indian passport and without travelling with her European husband. Guellouz reminded participants that despite our desire to erase and dismiss the use of these terms, the 'oriental' body does in fact exist in the way that some people continue to 'other' specific communities today.
The important debates raised in the Paris conference will continue to be discussed in a second, follow-up event in London: taking place at Purkayastha's institution, this will include themes and ideas related to South Asian and British Asian dance and theatre, embodied colonial and postcolonial histories, and feminist performance practices. I look forward to continuing the conversation later this year.