»Is vision a cultural sense?«
My work engages with the most primeval instrument of art history: vision. How we see today is shaped by our current contemporary perspective. But I think that different pictures can convey an impression of how people used to see things in different times and in different contexts. They also help us trace the development of our current modes of sight.
I examine pictures that represent different visual moments. Scenes that involve watching and looking. There is a scene in the story of Joseph in the Old Testament, for example, in which Potiphar’s wife – in the Persian context she is known as Zulaikha – glances toward Joseph. This scene is revisited not only in the Koran, but also in mystic Persian poetry and in Protestant catechisms. And each time, it was reconceived or redrawn. We can use these images to create an intercultural comparison of how differently this glance at Joseph is shown and valued.
For Rembrandt, the scene has a strong emphasis on the body. But physical beauty usually remains highly ambivalent in the European context: it is something to be shown, but not coveted. And the woman who awakens covetous thoughts is placed in a negative light. In the Persian context, on the other hand, these negative connotations are absent: Zulaikha realises that Joseph’s physical beauty is a reflection of the Divine. Then the story takes what western observers would regard as an unexpected turn: Joseph agrees to marry Zulaikha after she understands that his beauty is not merely physical, but actually comes from within.
Since I started researching the links between Euro- pean and Middle Eastern visual cultures, I have been confronted with a number of clichés about fundamental differences. The claim that Middle Eastern cultures are less driven by images than their European counterparts is just one stereo- type. My team and I try to focus on the close ties between those visual cultures – common references to Antiquity, for ex- ample, or other objects that circulated between Europe and the Middle East. There are rugs with Arabic lettering in Western European churches and German processional images in the albums of Muhgal rulers. This helps us better understand dividing lines in a shared history. Of course that doesn’t mean that art should be seen as a universally intelligible language – instead, artefacts need to be seen in context to combat clichés.
Photos: Pablo Castagnola
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