Academically, Orientalism is used in art history, studies of culture, literature and in geography to describe the Orient of the culture of the east. That is South West and South East Asia, North Africa and Middle East. It is dubbed the “European knowledge of the Orient’’ created by western Europe writers and artists. The Orient cultural effect was highly felt in Western Europe by application of visual styles of Asian descent in decorative arts and architecture.[1]

Edward Said in his publication, Orientalism featured Orientalism as the basis for cultural imperialism where the Western being more civilized than the Near East deems itself better and more superior than the East. Cultural imperialism insinuates that the Eastern descents lack cultural dynamism and are less developed intellectually.[2] Therefore, the Western deems itself as intellectually developed, flexible and rational hence more superior, unlike the Oriental descents. Edward also claims that Orientalism enables the west to dominate on the economy, socially and culturally both in the colonial times and presently.

Orientalism in art describes the work of artists from the West specializing in Oriental subjects gathered in their travels to Western Asia.[3] Orientalism has been widely linked with the artistry of the 19th century. It has been found alongside music and literature specifically romantic literature of the early 19th century.

Edward Said continues to criticize Orientalism. According to him, Orientalism served as a justification for the Western prejudice against the East. The West, therefore, misinterprets the eastern culture in a negative way to present itself as a better descent over the East. According to Said Orientalism was used to instill fear in the East hence paving the way for colonialism.[4] An art historian Linda Nochlin confers with Said on the art of the Orient. She and other scholars questioned the way the Western artists presented the Easterners as undeveloped and passive. For instance, they depicted nudity and serpents as a common appearance in public. The same artists further contradicted themselves with more work of art depicting the Orient with a more reserved mode of dressing.

This has therefore left scholars wondering if Orientalism is a fact or fiction. Linda Nochlin based her argument on artistry work of a painting by artist Gerome. She argues that the western staged their imagination to make it look like an authentic documentation of a place and its inhabitants. Their work of art would, therefore, have a background of the Arabic architecture but then staged with an exotic imagination of a racialized and highly sexualized culture often inclined to feminism.[5] She argues the art was convincing by taking after an oriental reality that existed earlier. These artists always incorporated North African cultures such as the Islamic and other Semitic Orientals. Some of these works of art were done as early as the fifteenth century before the French were even involved with North Africa. This, therefore, renders most of the artwork fictional. Nochlin further clarifies that the intervention of photography served no justice to the authenticity of the Orient. More often than not, the artists staged handheld props to satisfy the western illusion of the East.

Orientalism has highly featured in the European architecture and design. One prominent Turkish architecture openly declared his use for the Orient in his work of an architect. He had embraced the use of domes and arches, which are majorly a representation of the Islamic architecture. This could be positively viewed as the Western appreciating the birth of civilization in the East. It shows the rise of modernity in a place of passiveness.[6] However, it may also translate to one more item of imperialism. This is because the west incorporates the Eastern architectural designs, brands it western and sells it to the East. This still serves to challenge the East intellectually and in structures of power too.

The Victorian literature has also served a great deal to promote Orientalism. It has mostly featured as a depiction of romantic figures in this literature mostly bordering to nudity and highly feminized. A great figure in literary Orientalism is William Jones who published the Indian laws their culture and their languages.[7] This served to increase on the Victorian imperialism. In his literature Said and the Critiques of Said, Edward distinguishes between William Jones’ actions and what he calls modern Orientalism. He demystifies that it is the Western strategy of taking over and dominating the Orient, by military involvement and colonialism. These allegations made Said’s literature the most controversial piece and very instrumental in the study of Orientalism. This has since been used to study political interconnections with literature.

In Victorian literature, Orientalism is most applicable in fiction novels and travel writing, also in journalism and other writings. In fiction, Orientalism has been used to allude to events such as the Indian Mutiny, also Chinese associated habits like opium addiction. India is key in allusions of Orientalism. Africa, the South Seas and the Middle East are key locations of travel and fiction writing. In poetry, Orientalism has been featured in the works of Tennyson and Kipling.  Different writers have gone ahead to write about how Europe relates to non-Europeans. They have further depicted how Europeans continue to show fear of the non-Europeans.

Said in his book Orientalism makes a sensible argument on Orientalism and geography. He says that the Western chooses to view the Orient in a particular way based on an imagination propagated through literature and art. In one of his lectures, he stressed on the role of in imperialism and colonialism based on Orientalism. He argues that by elevating one national culture over the other results to “othering.”[8] This is executed under-imagined boundaries. He further argues that Orientalism is imagined geography since the entire Orient has been tailored to one culture by the European and secondly, what is written dictates who is the Orient is and not the Orient actions and way of life.

The theory of imagined geography has hence been developed. A French philosopher Michel believes that power and knowledge always go together. Said then incorporated this in his theory taking imaginary geography as a tool of power hence used to control the inferior subject. The boundaries depicted Europe as developed and powerful while Asia was described as undeveloped and defeated. Other writers too have taken up on this argument. Derek Gregory continues to show the imaginary boundaries where Muslims are depicted as uncivilized and violent in the War on Terror.

The art of Orientalism like any other practice against a certain society is bound to affect the subject in different ways. The effects range from the different aspects that define a society. According to Said Orientalism was the tool that the Western used to control, restructure and colonize the Orient.[9] The West continues to view the Orient as a place where they do not differentiate between politics and the social.

Orientalism has strongly affected the images in art and literature. Most Orientalist images are inclined to the female hence describing their contribution to economic growth. The female imagery was to downplay the male dominance in the West. Orientalism helped in painting a clear picture on the extent of racism amongst the human society. Besides, some cultures considered themselves more privileged than others. In addition, male to female relations were dictated by race and gender. Research has it that it is the women imagery in art and literature that led to a clear understanding of Orientalism in general.

Orientalism effect on knowledge is crucial for the orient to understand political and philosophical concepts related to them.  Abdel-Malek points out that Orientalism was best shown when the Orient collaborated with the colonizers.[10] He explains that Orientalism creates a phenomenon aimed at gathering all the information regarding nations prone to domination by others. An increased level of knowledge propagated liberation movements has seen to the fall of Orientalism amongst the Orients.

 Limitations of Said’s Theory of Orientalism

Despite the Said’s theory being widely used to capture the concept of Orientalism, experts have continued to criticize it. His theory seeks to convince that Orientalism was the tool that was used to oppress, control and restructure the Orient. He agrees with Michel’s theory which points that the Orient does not exist only its representations. However, Said seeks to establish the existent of the Orient that is being misrepresented.[11] He even states that it is wrong to assume, that the Orient was just an idea or representation that does not exist in reality.

Critics have continued to criticize the lack of position of Said’s theory. Aijaz Ahmed argues that this theory destroys the old regimes more than it constructs the new ones.  It is noted that he intentionally omits German tradition scholarship of Orientalists that was not involved with colonialism in the East.  He refuses to acknowledge the non-colonialism effects of Orientalism.[12] In consideration of Orientalists in Germany and Japan, his theory is nullified by the fact that Germany did not colonize the East while the West despite being subject to Orientalism did not colonize Japan.

It has been argued that Said emphasizes on the East being passive while he fails to show how the people also benefited from some of the aspects of colonialism. An example is the Orientalists’ retaliation on the Indian spirituality.  Reformers used that to develop an anti-colonial Hindu nationalism. This reflects a positive effect of the colonial regime on the natives. Therefore, it is evident that his theory is self-contradictory.

In conclusion, the western has capitalized on Orientalism to dominate the East. It is therefore upon the Orient to fight to change its image from the prejudicial westernized image to what it is.  The Orient should seek to reclaim its place in the society with self-worth and intellect. A collaboration of the western nations with the Orient economically is one way to rebuild the Orients image. However, sometimes this is aimed at exploiting the Orient.



Cronin, Stephanie. “Introduction: Edward Said, Russian Orientalism and Soviet Iranology.” Iranian Studies 48, no. 5 (2015): 647-662.

Hutton, Deborah S. A companion to Asian art and architecture. John Wiley & Sons, 2015.

Machida, Margo. Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary. Duke University Press, 2009.

Ray, Amit. Negotiating the modern: Orientalism and Indianness in the Anglophone world. Routledge, 2016.


[1] Margo Machida Unsettled Visions: Contemporary Asian American Artists and the Social Imaginary (Duke University Press, 2009), 57-119.

[2]Margo, 58

[3] Stephanie Cronin, “Introduction: Edward Said, Russian Orientalism and Soviet Iranology,” Iranian Studies 48, no. 5 (2015): 647.


[4] Margo, 64

[5] Deborah S. Hutton, A companion to Asian art and architecture, (John Wiley & Sons, 2015), 70-84.


[6] Margo, 64

[7] Deborah, 71

[8] Margo, 112

[9] Margo, 112

[10] Amit, Ray, Negotiating the modern: Orientalism and Indianness in the Anglophone world. (Routledge, 2016), 13-25


[11] Margo, 58

[12] Stephanie, 650

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