Beyond the kitchen:
Stories from the Thai Park

(museum website)

at Bezirksmuseum Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf, 2020 / funded by Senatsverwaltung für Kultur und Europa, Bezirksamt
Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf and Goethe-Institut Thailand

un.thai.tled Film Festival 2020

(bi’bak website)
at Sinema Transtopia (project by bi’bak) 2020 / funded by Nord-Süd-Brücke Stiftung, Berliner Projektfonds Kulturelle Bildung,
Purin Pictures and Goethe-Institut Thailand


“Because I am human”

director /

- based in berlin

Sarnt Utamachote © 2020

Prakash, Gyan. "Orientalism now." History and theory (1995): 199-212.

The article offers a review of diverse critiques or expansions on Edward Said’s Orientalism; an overview on its consequences, its provocations. It appears to many scholars (especially Oriental Studies or “Area Studies, later) as either a “wake-up call”; a direct challenge in their centuries-old practices; a link between institutional power (Western imperial quest) and production of knowledge. Cultures - or the Orient - therefore should no longer be seen as “essentialist and differentiating” (based on nation states, borders nor ethnicity), but as intertwined (micro-)histories and human experiences (p208). Orientalist practices established themselves as means to hegemony (or instrument) - as “discourse” -, hence any person, whose aims are to be part or be recognized in hegemony, must comply with (p207). In this way - similar to Capitalism - Orientalism sustains its positions via being open to change and heterogeneity (p206), by involving many possible actors into its own reproductions (from “(desexualized) natives” to “(hypersexualized) Western feminists”) (p210); sustaining its authority in knowledge about the Other (p202).

Scott, Matthew. "Edward Said's Orientalism." Essays in Criticism 58, no. 1 (2008): 64-81.

Scott expands on what Said originally wrote. In short, Orientalism is a practice; production of epistemological object/product “rather than result of any direct apprehension of the real” (p65). He uses the decentralising power of Derridean reading - as “words can only be precise by a science of words, purified of inexactness, emotion or sloppiness” (Said, p145) - to understand this “study of the construction of an object, for investigation and control” (Spivak), which many diverse heterogenous texts/methodologies have contributed to (p66). That there is a direct link from Romanticism to Orientalism; that the goals of Enlightenment lies in the transcendental universalization of the human (the Orient, in this case) (p69) - yet on via coercive means; “when sympathy dissolves into subjectivism” (p69) and essentializing of the Other (p70). This goal leads to imperialism; when transcendental (Western) man uses (Oriental) Other as justification of his position as visionary, as God’s messenger and “abject” negation to this higher position (p72-73). It was the (Western) man who could find kinship between himself and Orient, by creating “phantom” to serve such kinship/mission (Said, p118); creating East as place of “strange paradigms of thought and behavior [...] in challenging and baffling ways” (p77).

Melford, George. The Sheik. (1921).

First question before I clicked on the film is - will it make a difference if someone completely else (especially from the regions) has made the film? Was this Oriental “technology” already available (let alone internalized) in the Orient since that time?

The film “The Sheik” (George Melford, 1921) interestingly portrays a plot-twisting character Sheik (played by Rudolph Valentine, “the first gay icon”, one of earliest male stars) - who embodies racially passing power (as a British-Spanish born person but raised in the Arabic tribe), resembling of “Tarzan of the Apes” (1912 - later made into Disney films): a European “cosmopolitan” to-be-educated person who knows how to switch codes (between savage and colonizer’s languages). Sheik was educated in France, yet has to lead his nomadic tribe in mysterious Arabia (the imaginary place of dunes and caravans). Diana embodies a seemingly passive European female (with proto-feminist tendency; the need to “escape” patriarchal institution of marriage and boredom - the yearn for “adventure” and sexual liberation) - whose desire is the driving force behind film’s narrative (the film abruptly ends when she whole-heartedly falls in love with Sheik, who risks his life to rescue her - with revelation about Sheik’s “real” origin and liberation from the Other Savage). The novelist presents a person with hegemonic instrument; writing and constitution of desire - he has been using the power to construct the image of “faithful, loving” man, which becomes the object of desire in female eyes.

This heroic narratives presents firstly a hierarchy amongst savages, established during colonial times; those who bring the profits to the empire are to be recognized as “us” (Sheik being local cooperator to colonial expansion: he saves Diana from Other savage “worse” than him). Furthermore, this hierarchy is sustained by “colonial mindset” or codes of conduct - observing from how Sheik wrestles between the modern “self-control” (he decides not to “abuse” Diana, 36:00) and the savagery “sexually greedy” (“The Arabs take what they want!” - Diana). This complexity hence goes beyond the one-dimensional discourse on racial essences (doesn’t matter if Sheik is European or not, if he behaves like savage, he could be savage). Once being reminded that he should act like savage (sexually greedy, taking and plundering - instead of “You want her for yourself?”, 1:02:56), Sheik is shocked and realizes he is now “in love” with Diana.

The shot of sleeping Diana (18:48, 37:20, 1:13:47) resembles the usual “male gaze” and the audience’s identification with the “male abuser” (Sheik and other warlord), yet the shot of sleeping/wounded Sheik at the end (1:22:14) retells the empathy of “female lover” (Diana) - in this way, Sheik (heroic, self-controlling “better” savage) has finally completed the conditions of desire - of faithful, caring hero - and become then the object of “gaze”. This mode of identification - via gazing and desire - is the dominant character in this exact “Classical Era” of Hollywood (ca 1920-1950s); when the “genre” (marketization of taste, target groups and class divisions) meets (perhaps) Orientalism. Travelling into the unknown (usual trope during “Early Cinema”) now becomes retelling about the exotic knowns (the narrative genre). Recalling the presumably premise of the film :

“When love is more destined than riches, it is the will of Allah. Let another be chosen” (2:38).

The spatial plays a gendered role in this film. European subjects (the novelist and Diana) are “weak” against the sandstorms and barbaric forces (tribesmen); the savages are strong and relentless. The mobility of these subjects - usually allowed in “civilized” city/interior space; Diana could pass as a boy (as Sheik once calls her “You make a very charming boy”) or pass a Oriental person (in the beginning due to curiosity) - is disturbed in this no-man’s-land territory: the dune and desert. Sheik’s - being the only male who can mobilize force across this (the novelist can’t) - heroic act embodies exactly the empire’s mission: to utilize local conflicts and create violence under the masquerade of “unity”. The racially ambivalent - which to the extend is “mimicry” - identities are the unintentional byproducts of the empire (Homi K. Bhabba, The Location of Culture, 1994) as well. The last shot of the film when the novelist walks out from the room, failed to “own” Diana (after Diana confesses her love to Sheik), the whole tribesmen bow down after shouting “All well with Allah”, leaving only the novelist standing. This picture - if being taken out of context - can be read that tirbesmen show novelist the act of surrender or he has higher power than them.

The question I ask myself next is, would the story be this “melodramatic”, if it was the non-passing white European who captivates the white European female; if Sheik was portraying typical Euopeans and not the Oriental Arabs? - or in better words; how does the element of Arabs being savage/uncivilized/backward/aggressive serve into the audience’s perception in terms of marketing. It reminds what Linda Nochlin’s “Imaginary Orient”; critique on Orientalist “realism” of Delacroix and Gerome’s paintings - “[the artist] had come too close to an overt statement of the most explosive, hence the most carefully repressed, corollary of the ideology of male domination: the connection between sexual possession and murder as an assertion of absolute enjoyment.” (Nochlin, 1989, pp43)

The most interesting part of me is (53:55- 54:) the conversation between novelist and Sheik; the European man confronts/asks the savage man to rethink about his captivation of European female (Diana) - which marks exception to other Oriental females he has captured - by which Sheik replies “But she is content”. This can be problematized that,  first this is a man (actor, filmmaker as well - embodying males) speaking for women’s content; second is how Oriental Other reverses Western hegemonic “human rights” (consent) onto itself; thirdly is how the entire conversation later this sentence is left out (having no more texts for reading). This fascinates me to imagine, the reason (or failure) to represent dialogues between Oriental Other and European scholars - or rather these dialogues are not to be found because it has been a self-monologue the whole time.

I would love to further note that many persons - especially the “peripheral” (minor) characters - hardly have spoken (i.e. the texts of their voices don’t appear). They appear all as caricature - white dressed traditional/Oriental clothes. The exception is, of course, the European ladies in the city who gossip about their lives.

Thoughts/summaries of readings in seminar

“Representing Middle East in Photography and Films”

Professor Wendy Shaw, Freie Universität Berlin.

Nochlin, Linda. “The Imaginary Orient,” The Politics of Vision: Essays on Nineteenth-Century Art and Society (1989)

Nochlin’s article deals greatly to the “real” facts behind 19th century “realist” paintings (of picturesque) in the works of Delacroix and Gerome; starting from the question “whose” reality one tries to depict (p34). The exotic Other, Oriental Other are depicted as not necessarily backwards but fixated - as remnants of their vivid past - the “timeless” living history (of what is being currently destroyed by European colonialism) (p35-37). The paintings - or the choice to paint - disregards its contemporary situations; when Europe structurally attempted to civilize Ottoman Empire via technologies, education and religion; when Algeria rebelled, emancipated against the French (p50). The painters depict what the audiences - both travellers and to-be-travellers in the empire - what they want to see: the Orient people, “idle” (lazy, passive) from another time (p39)

This complicates the practice of “realism” (or better “authenticist”, “naturalist”) from 1873 which many artists have taken; the seriousness of their arts to the extend that it should no longer be seen (which means, hide itself from the critical stance) as artwork; hence ”orientalist transparency” (p38); its “reality effect” reproduces what visual culture later comes to utilize as main instrument; “the total visual field as a simple, artless reflection [of] Oriental reality” (p38).

This critique sets the institutional evaluation of paintings (as high “non-reproductive” art) down to other postcards (“reproductive” commodity) - which both include the sensual erotica (of massive conquering, desiring under mask of “ethnography” or “realism”); of male’s dominance over female and white European’s over Orientals (p45) ; which is merged by theories of Frankfurt School, who claims that cultural - surface - reflects the economy - structure - (reproductive) as well.

Chander, Manu Samriti, "Framing Difference: The Orientalist Aesthetics of David Roberts and Percy Shelly," Keats Shelly Journal, 60 (2011), 77-94.

This article points out to positionality; of putting the observer (the audience, presumably European markets, as well as artist) in distance to the Oriental Other (p81), in order to “frame” the Other as (not-yet)subject (p84); in realm of imaginary and outside process of self-actualization (locked in the material world; unable to emancipate). With somewhat complex Kantian analysis on transcendental/universalizing potentials of observer which a priori sets the position of Oriental Other in this way, this results in the “picturesque sublime” (p78-80) - in my own terms; the beauty made via the (violent, essentializing yet context-disregarding) abstraction of Other onto artistic canvas.

In this analysis, the object being seen matters more than the act of seeing (or the “culture” or contextuality of it) (p82) - “what” to be framed thus devoids the Oriental Other of his/her/their own “culture”; framing it as subject unable to be universalized (or to be included with European linage of cultures and historiography). Robert’s photography, seemingly apolitical and neutral, frames the architecture, the ruins of empire and their sizes in comparison to people who aren’t civilized men, in his perspectives (based on his notebooks) - following the tradition of tastes in reproductive mediums (p80). Shelley’s poem describes the veiled maiden as mere vision, the seen but nothing of a human (p89) yet the poet’s power can’t contain/can’t frame her “affect” - as it constitutes the desire and overwhelms the visionary/poet; “bewitching” (p91). Nature in his poem is seen as human’s action; racialized into entanglement with Other - this reflects their power (from “magic”; from subconscious’s identification with Other via our projections) (p93).