What can images of foreigners tell us about the people that make them?
Many cultures have looked to artistic representation as a means of learning about foreigners, coming to terms with the presence of outsiders in their own societies, and defining their relationships with people different from themselves. Sometimes this has resulted in costume books like those produced by Venetians in the Islamic world during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Other times, it has led to the depiction of foreigners in decorative arts or narrative scenes. In their art, both the Japanese painter of the namban screen and the creator of the Benin saltcellar made representational decisions that illuminate the way they perceived the European merchants who had become constant fixtures in their communities.
Questions to Consider
- One of these pieces was created for a local audience, the other for a foreign patron. Can you tell which is which just by looking? What knowledge guides your assessment? What assumptions do you make?
- Although we might think of these two pieces as recording observations of foreigners, both rely on subjective decisions made by the artist. What features of the foreigners represented seem important to each respective artist? What does this suggest about the artist’s own interests, values, or concerns?
- Today, we often learn about foreign people and cultures through photographs. What do you think the benefits of visual representation are in this case? What might be the negative repercussions of so-called “ethnographic” images?
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