Picture Worth a Thousand Words

Is a Picture Worth a Thousand Words?

Iconographic Sources of Middle East Dancing1

Anthony Shay, Ph.D.

“Oh, miniatures! Sure sign of a petty mind.”

Line from the film The Women, by Claire Booth Luce

One of the major frustrations of research in dance in the Middle East, Central Asia, and North Africa is the lack of native sources for use in constructing a historical background against which to cast movement practices, social contexts, and aesthetic underpinnings of current dancing and other patterned movement activities found in this vast area.2 The purpose of this essay is to look at two genres of art as potential sources for historical evidence of dancing and dancers. Those two genres are 1) native art forms such as Persian and Ottoman miniatures, that constitute the illustrations for valuable literary, historical, and scientific manuscripts, and ceramics, metal work, and other iconographic media and 2) Orientalist paintings and lithographs of largely Western provenance. These two genres constitute the main sources for visual images of historical dancing and dancers. Except for rare poetic metaphors and one or two other treatises, the visual arts form the main “native voice” that depicts and represents dance. The main problems that I will address are: to what degree are iconographic sources useful in the historical study of dance, as well as their value in possible reconstructions of specific dances, and what are the chief limitations surrounding these art forms.

First, I will address the main question I proposed and then investigate problems posed by general issues concerning the viewing of iconographic materials, problems and misconceptions specific to viewing Islamic and Orientalist art, and finally, I will focus on more specific issues regarding the use of both native and Orientalist art.

Native voices are largely absent in writing about dance. I suggest that the reason for this is the reluctance of the native literati to discuss a topic that constitutes low behavior such as dancing, particularly in public spaces by professional dancers, who were widely regarded as beyond the pale of polite society. For example, Rouhollah Khaleqi, an Iranian musician and historian, devotes a chapter to professional female dancers of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in his three-volume work on Persian music. He expresses himself as reluctant to discuss the whole issue of professional dancers because of their lurid reputations, but prides himself on his bravery and frankness in mentioning their roles as performers (1976: 469). Given his attitude toward discussing professional women entertainers, the idea of discussing male dancers must have proven truly impossible and although there are some photographs of them in the text, he remains silent on the topic. Underscoring my observation that the literati throughout the Middle East avoided discussion of dance and dancers, Turkish dance scholar, Metin And notes: “Turkish sources offer little information with regard to dancing boys and dancing girls. This is because dancing was regarded by many writers of the past as an improper and wicked sport, especially when indulged in by professional women and boys” (1959: 24).

“Slave Market,” Jean-Leon Gerome, 1866

The other, and main, source of written descriptions of dance comes from European diplomats and travelers – mercantile, military, adventuring figures – who left their impressions in journals, letters, and books, which were very popular and widely read throughout the West. From the time of Herodotus, these accounts and representations have been almost universally xenophobic and negative, illustrative of the subject of Orientalism that I will address later. Here are a few brief examples from Iran and Central Asia: “The dances, so far as I was able to judge, were by no means indecent, though they were often very lascivious” (Schuyler 1876:72). “Dancing boys . . .more remarkable for acrobatic skill than for grace, at any rate according to our ideas” (Browne 1893:120).”It is here too that the eyes and the ears which still retains some trace of shame are obliged to turn aside, being unable to sustain the decency and lasciviousness of these last acts.” (Chardin 1673-77 quoted in Surieu 1967:130). “While refreshments were being served, a number of the pretty, effeminately dressed boys attached to the establishment [a coffee house in Isfahan] came forward to give a display of dancing. The Spanish Ambassador was considerably shocked by the lascivious posturing of a Circassian and a Persian, who performed a competition dance” (quoted in Blunt 1966:100).

Similar observations are found regarding Turkish dancing by a seventeenth-century Englishman: “There was a delicate lovely boy, of about ten yeares old . . with him dance’t a lusty handsome man (about 25), both Turkes. They acceded all the roguish lascivious postures conceivable with that strange ingenuity of silent ribaldry, as I protest I believe Sardanopalus and all the effeminate courts of the East never came near them” (quoted in And 1961:27). Another in 1813, commented, “That part of the entertainment which is most to the fancy of the company, and which no Englishman would patiently contemplate for a moment, is the exhibition of the Yamakis, or dancing boys.” (ibid:28).

Another English observation of dancing girls in Egypt, “We were not amused or pleased. They are neither graceful nor pretty and simply writhed and contorted themselves, and struck us as quite unpleasant” (quoted in Berger 1961:12). A French artist who accompanied Napoleon to Egypt stated, “the performers, all of them of the male sex, presented, in the most indecent way, scenes which love has reserved for the two sexes in the silent mystery of the night” (quoted in Berger 1961: 30-31).

Thus, the use of such “observations laced with blatant condescension,” in Holly Edwards’s terms (2000: 140), exhibited by the majority of Western individuals, severely restrict their use for historical evidence of dancing for serious scholars. In addition to the condescension, with which we are faced in the writings of most Westerners, we also find several European and American males who physically and literally “colonized” the oriental dancing body, such as the oft-quoted Gustave Flaubert, so tellingly and wittily deconstructed by Stavros Stavrou (2001). The descriptions of these often breathless encounters, in which they describe how they “penetrated” the mystery of the East, rendered in appropriately purple prose, throws yet further problems in the path of the unwary scholar. These assignations often took place with public female ghawazi and male khawal dancers, who danced in public spaces and attracted the attention of European and American men interested in the ultimate titillating experience of physically intimate meetings since these individuals were widely perceived as sexually available. Stavrou observes that:

Truly few images impose such a formidable confrontation with gender, sexuality and imperial anxiety as a native body engaged in dance. Nonetheless, travelers persistently sought encounters with the dancers of the Middle East. Often their quest was of a feverish pitch yet, paradoxically, they remained possessed by anxieties engendered by a dancer’s perceived potency. Afterwards, these encounters with the Egyptian ghawazee and khawals, the Algerian Ouled Nayl, the Turkish cengi, among others, became a prominent feature in well-known journals, memoirs, poetry and prose. (2001: 1)

These writings, redolent of the orientalist attitudes analyzed by Edward Said and others, place the Western observer in the superior role and dance, in particular, became a trope for establishing the decadence, lascivious sexual mores, and unrestrained sexuality of the Oriental. Thus, perceiving that written sources are so severely limited by xenophobia and colonialist myopia, in order to gain insights into the history of dance in the Middle East, the historian of Middle Eastern dance finds him or herself turning to that most visual and widely available of sources: the visual arts.

Pictorial Sources for Middle Eastern Dancing

While studies by Fermor (1987, fifteenth-century Italy), Strauss (1978, historic China), and Lawler (1964, Ancient Greece) deal with some issues that are addressed in this essay, the Islamic world presents a special situation in that it forms what I term a “choreophobic” society (Shay 1999), one in which dance is regarded with ambiguity and even with hostility by a large segment of the population. In addition to iconographic sources, Fermor, Strauss, and Lawler had access to natively written sources describing dance in the specific societies they investigated. However, as we have seen, few written native sources describing dance exist in the Islamic world, and those of foreigners are laden with xenophobia. Thus, we turn to the visual arts, which, while providing important information regarding dance and its contexts, are not unproblematic.

Before addressing the specific genres of art that I will analyze in some detail, one of the major questions I pose is: for purposes of dance research what is it that can be perceived in viewing art in a general way? How does art that depicts dance relate to reality and actual performance practices of the past, in another time and place? Peggy Phelan a leading performance studies scholar states that:

A believable image is the product of a negotiation with an unverifiable real. As a representation of the real the image is always, partially, phantasmic. In doubting the authenticity of the image, one questions as well the veracity of she who makes and describes it. (1993:1)

Phelan was writing about and for a (primarily) Western audience and a Western gaze, therefore, a more crucial question for us is: for what purpose the art was created and for whom? The general issues that Phelan raises regarding representation, the “real” and the “gaze” have the potential for shedding light on several issues of what is depicted, and more importantly, what is not depicted and the possible meanings of those depictions and gaps and absences, particularly in the non-Western art forms that we will analyze. Phelan’s analysis of representation is crucial for the examination of both Orientalist paintings and Middle Eastern art forms:

Representation follows two laws: it always conveys more than it intends; and it is never totalizing. The “excess” meaning conveyed by representation creates a supplement that makes multiple and resistant readings possible. Despite this excess, representation produces ruptures and gaps: it fails to reproduce the real exactly. (ibid: 2)

Sharon Fermor, in her study of fifteenth-century dance in Italy, for which much more written and visual evidence exists than for oriental dance, asks: “how far is it possible either to represent or to reconstruct a particular step or movement from one specific pose?” (1987: 30). She cautions the dance historian who turns to pictorial sources for reconstructing movements for dance that:

For the most part, in representing dance, painters relied on a set of established formulas, formulas that they knew their audience would recognize and which they themselves could draw on without reference to real dance practice. These formulas probably bore only a very loose relationship to actual contemporary dance. (1987: 18)

The concept of the “period eye,” which Geertz (1983) describes in considerable detail is a useful concept for demonstrating how artists in all times and places create for audiences in their own societies who were familiar with the conventions and symbolism, as well as what is not shown, in their various media of cultural production. The “period eye” is the eye with the specific knowledge of a particular time and place that understands all of the artistic conventions included in a particular art form. To understand and correctly interpret each artistic tradition requires the researcher to acquire the “local knowledge,” that is the attitudes and viewpoints that constitute the knowledge that culturally competent audiences have internalized in different times and places to “read” the art, in whatever form, that was created for them. These art forms can be as diverse as Nigerian drumming patterns, Chinese embroideries, Baroque concertos, Renaissance paintings, or Persian miniatures.

Diwan of Haviz: Lovers entertained by Musicians and Dancers. Painted for Sam Mirza, c. 1533.

As an example I conducted a survey of several scores of the iconographic sources from Iran and Central Asia that depicted dance and they revealed that in most of the representations, the dancers were shown in variations of only two stylized poses, underscoring Fermor’s observation. As Lawler concludes, and I concur, “We shall never, in all probability, be able to restore any ancient dance in its entirety.” This is, of course, the major objection to attempting to reproduce an exact replica of any historical dance through the study of iconographic sources. However, as we will see, this does not prevent some choreographers, sometimes claiming months and even years of research, from creating highly imaginative choreographies of Middle Eastern dancing parading as authentic reconstructions.

Orientalist Paintings

As I mentioned above there are two primary iconographic sources for establishing the presence of dance and dancers in the Middle East in historical sources: the Orientalist paintings and lithographs of Westerners and native iconographic sources such as Persian and Ottoman Turkish miniature paintings. Surprisingly, these two sources share several elements at the same time as they contrast vividly in style and technique. Both are idealized, fantasy visions of the East, created for different audiences, demonstrating different artistic viewpoints, and for different purposes. The Orientalist paintings were created exclusively for the nineteenth-century Western viewer. Many of them adorned the annual salons of paintings in Paris or the walls of museums intended for viewing by the expanding middle and upper classes of Europe and North America. These paintings largely served as a visual aid to the nineteenth century imperative to empire, justifying French and English colonial activities in the Middle East and North Africa through depictions of natives as backward and disorderly. They often brought a visual aspect to the colorful travel journals depicting Middle Eastern life. It is important to keep in mind, as Edwards (2000), makes clear, that Orientalism in painting went through several phases. They range from respectful scenes of the Holy Land to over-the-top depictions of sex and violence such as Delacroix’s monumental Death of Sardanapalus, painted before he ever saw the Middle East.

The miniatures of Persia, Central Asia and the Ottoman Empire, on the other hand, were painted for a few pairs of royal eyes and were intended to accompany extremely, expensive and highly treasured manuscripts of literary masterpieces such as the Shahnameh, the epic history of Iran, or to accompany the poetry of Hafez, Sa’adi, and Nezami Ganjavi. This latter genre glorified the ruling dynasties that patronized the painter, creating an historical document to commemorate those dynasties for posterity. The most alluring aspects of these two genres of paintings lies in another shared quality: an excess of “authentic” detail utilized by the artist to create a sense of historical or ethnographic “reality.” It is this excess of detail in clothing, architecture, and interior design that lures the unsuspecting twentieth and twenty-first century Western, and sometimes Eastern, viewer into uncritically accepting these images as if they contained the properties of a photograph, a depiction of a “real” scene observed and rendered by the artist as an historical document.

I will begin with an analysis of Orientalist paintings and lithographs, since they are related to the writings alluded to above and because they occupy a much shorter time period, primarily the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.3 Orientalism has become one of the main scholarly discourses in the last quarter of the twentieth century, interwoven with concepts of colonialism, post colonial and subaltern studies, and the construction of the “Other.” A basic discussion of the massive topic of Orientalism is beyond the scope of this essay, however I will briefly introduce those elements that imbue the production of Orientalist visual arts. A careful study of the painting of artists like Jean-Leon Gerome (1824-1904) reveal several points introduced by Edward Said (1978). These elements include depicting the Middle East as a place frozen in time; nothing ever changes. It is also a place of idleness, over-emphasized spirituality, sexual permissiveness, and violence. I point out Gerome, among scores of other painters, because his body of works, which create “an imaginative geography of the Orient,” in Said’s terms, is representative of Orientalist painting and well known and widely reproduced in catalogs of Orientalist exhibits that have become very popular over the past two decades. As Linda Nochlin indicates regarding the ahistorical, frozen-in-time quality that pervades these paintings: “Yet, these were in fact years of violent and conspicuous change in the Near East as well, changes affected primarily by Western power—technological, military, economic, cultural—and specifically by the very French presence Gerome so scrupulously avoids” (1983: 122).

It is important to first take cognizance of, and then avoid, the excessive polemical attitudes introduced by Edward Said’s groundbreaking book Orientalism (1978). Many scholars throughout academia have taken up cudgels to condemn any and all writings, paintings, and other western cultural output perceived as tainted by Orientalism, a term which is used to characterize a will to dominate and speak for the Other. Nevertheless, many of Said’s points are crucial and important and need to be addressed by individuals who study the visual arts and the performing arts. As art historian, Sarah Graham-Brown states: “Nowhere is 19th century Europe’s vision of the Middle East expressed so vividly —at times even luridly—as in the work of its painters. Their canvases reveal how Orientalism created what Edward Said calls ‘an imaginative geography’ of the region’” (1984: 56). There is no doubt that much of the writing and painting that characterizes the depictions of the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa, visual and written, falls into this category.4 Many of the depictions of women, such as Gerome’s Slave Market (1866) constitute at once an opportunity to provide psychosexual fantasies for the Western male viewer while simultaneously depicting the Middle Easterner as sexually depraved, violent and cruel. His Snake Charmer, painted in the c. 1880, depicting a nude, pre-pubescent male, holding a snake “conforming to no known herpetological type” standing before an admiring male audience contains undoubted “homoerotic overtones,” in Edward’s terms (2001: 130). Gerome’s fantasy scene further situates the Middle Easterner in a demeaning moral position vis-à-vis the superior gaze of his purportedly morally untainted heterosexual Western observer. Such paintings, like the aforementioned writings, create images through such elements as the decaying architecture and slack sexual morality seen in the Slave Market and the weapons hanging on the wall in the Snake Charmer, suggesting a preoccupation with violence, that enter into the discourse of colonialism, enabling the Western viewer to justify the colonization of the Other, who is so uncontrollable, lazy, and morally depraved that they cannot be trusted to keep buildings in good repair, make the trains run on time, or keep any kind of order. The Europeans must do all of this for these benighted people by taking over and instilling order, industry, and a European standard of moral order.5

After the publication of Said’s work, art historians divided into two camps regarding the Orientalist paintings of painters like Jean-Leon Gerome, many condemning his work and others attempting to recuperate his reputation as “a gifted and truthful observer of long past colorful scenes of the Near East,” as art historian Richard Ettinghausen generously characterized him (quoted in Edwards 2001: 128). As Edwards summed up the controversy: “The current consensus lies between the extremes. Thus, one can acknowledge the accuracy of Gerome’s Arabic inscriptions, his architectural renderings, or his ethnographic detail and also point out his predilections for faked ensembles and titillating narratives” (ibid).

This latter observation forms the principal reason to exercise caution when using the work of orientalist artists for purposes of research. They are not depicting a reality, but a fantasy. The bodies of the dancers they depict are as often as not, painted using European models exuding a voluptuousness designed to provide pleasure for and appeal to the Western (male) eye. The languorous quality of Gerome’s almeh, who appears to lack any vitality or energy, for example, stands in sharp contrast to the actual movements of oriental dance, which requires considerable focus and physical control.

In line with Phelan’s argument that resistant and alternative readings of these paintings and writings are possible, Zeynep Celik’s important article (2001) points out that educated individuals in the Ottoman Empire were both aware of and frustrated by the depictions of their society by Europeans, and made attempts to decenter and undermine the dominant Orientalist discourse established by Europeans through their own writings and visual arts such as painting in order to provide a resistant voice. Celik describes and analyzes three such attempts by Ottoman individuals. The Ottoman sultan, Abdul Hamid II sent an elaborate set of photographic albums to the President of the United States to be placed in the Library of Congress to counteract the offensive urban vistas found in Orientalist paintings. Osman Hamdi Bey, a Turkish painter who trained with Gerome and lived in Paris for more than a decade, returned to Turkey to produce paintings representing an alternative depiction of the Ottoman Empire. Instead of the nude odalisques perishing of boredom on pillows in the harem or the bath, Osman Hamdi Bey in one painting shows a girl, fully-clothed and reading; another painting depicts two musicians dressed in correctly rendered clothing of the time, while a third painting represents a wife serving her husband coffee, all of which are presented minus the voluptuous fleshy European models that populated many of the French-produced Orientalist paintings. A third example that Celik presents is the well-known female writer, Fatma Aliye Hanim, who had published novels and essays, and through her writings, established an imaginary dialogue with Western women through a series of scenes in which Fatma Aliye Hanim addresses misconceptions concerning Islam, the position of women in Ottoman society, polygamy, and other issues.6 For the purpose of addressing the highly vaunted “ethnographic reality” claimed for Orientalist paintings, and the photographs that underpinned their supposed authenticity, Fatma Aliye Hanim deconstructs several photographs of “Middle Eastern” women by pointing out to her imaginary interlocutor that:

Such photographs do not depict Turkish women, but Christian women who pose as Orientals. She then deconstructs the exotic “Turkish” scene in the photograph: the head scarf is the Arabian kaffiyeh, the vest and the pants are Albanian, the chair in the foreground is from Damascus, and the cup on it from India. Fatma Aliye Hanim adds sarcastically that she is unable to identify the national identity of the Muslim woman to whom the narghile in the odalisques’s hand belongs.

Thus, we see that these paintings and lithographs were often filled with objects that did not occur together in their original settings. Gerome’s (and other’s) “faked ensembles” were often curios brought home from a variety of places during the course of travels and reassembled for dramatic effect to underline “titillating narratives”. This underscores the last point I wish to make about Orientalism, that is, as Fatma Aliye Hanim tellingly points out, for the Orientalist artist, the Orient is one, undifferentiated place. Turkey, the Arab World, North Africa, the Iranian world, India, and Central Asia were often conflated into one large, timeless East. Paintings contained a mosque from one city, a minaret from another, and the people who populate several of the paintings, according to their dress, would never have encountered one another in daily life.

Native Iconographic Sources Characteristics of Islamic Art

What are the principal forms of Islamic art that depict dance? For purposes of this essay, the principal forms of visual arts that depict representations of dance and dancers in the various areas of the Middle East consist of paintings, primarily miniatures from Persia and Persianate art found in Central Asia, as well as ceramics and tiles from this area that covers a time period of over a period of six centuries. Later, in Iran during the late eighteenth and throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century we find large paintings and murals, both fine art genres produced for the elites and folklorized paintings and murals found in coffee houses catering to the urban working classes. In Ottoman Turkey, a large body of Persian-inspired miniatures, covering a period of more than five centuries, provides the major native voice for evidence of dance in Ottoman Turkey.7 The Arab world provides a special case. For reasons unknown to major Islamic art historians such as Oleg Grabar and Alexandre Papadopoulo, figurative art lasted for only a short period, the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fourteenth century when Grabar tells us “almost as abruptly as it began, the fascination with representations disappears (1992: 127). For this reason we have no large body of examples of figurative painting from the Arab world.

For those who are familiar with Islamic art, it is clear that figurative, representational art occupies a far less prominent place in Islamic society than it does in either the Far East or the West. A major question that arises in perceiving Islamic art is: does Islamic art suggest or propose ways of viewing and perceiving that are essentially different than those in which other art forms are viewed and analyzed? One of the commonplace canons regarding Islamic art is that Islam prohibited the depiction of the human figure, and even animals, based on the notion that only God can create living things. Certainly some individual Muslims, and even some governments, as we witnessed the extreme behavior of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan destroying the Buddhist statues in Bamyan, oppose any representation of living figures. This issue needs to be resolved for purposes of this article as it concerns how and where figurative art appeared in an Islamic context. It seems only in the last decade that the notion of a total ban on figurative art in Islamic countries has been challenged by a new generation of scholars, many of them from the countries of origin.

Old misconceptions linger. The most persistent one is that figurative art in Islam was either banned or at best tolerated in a more or less “heretical” context. This mistaken idea owes a lot to the circumstances under which the art of the various Islamic cultural areas was discovered by the West. . . .Thus figurative art in Islam came to be equated, wrongly, with Iranian painting… The Arab world itself cultivated figurative art from the beginning on a spectacular monumental scale. A long-cherished view in the West has it that calligraphy and abstract designs consisting of formal motifs developed in the East as a compensation for the ‘forbidden living image’. . . a glance at Persian literature on painting and calligraphy is enough to disprove the contention. (Melikian-Chirvani 1985: 21-22)

As an increasing number of scholars of Islamic art have begun to emphasize, figurative art is not mentioned in the Qur’an. The chief mention is the passage in surah V, 92: “O ye who believe, wine and games of chance and idols and divining arrows are an abomination of satan’s handiwork; so avoid it and prosper.” Thus, it is the worship of idols that is specifically prohibited. Through the centuries this position hardened and figurative art has never been produced in religious contexts such as the production of Qur’an or in religious structures.8 Turkish art historian, Gulru Necipoglu notes that:

With its purely geometric vocabulary the girih (knot) was only one of many abstract modes of design that flourished in the medieval Islamic world in response to the constrictions placed on the scope of figural representation, which from the very beginning was excluded from religious monuments and illuminated Korans. Although figural representation had a rich life of its own throughout Islamic history, it was consistently relegated to profane contexts in architecture, the decorative arts, and miniature painting. (1995: 92)

At a midpoint in his life as he grew increasingly religiously conservative and intolerant, Shah Tahmasb, a sixteenth-century Safavid ruler of Iran, closed down his atelier. His highly skilled and well-known artists migrated to the Ottoman Empire and to Central Asia, establishing schools and ateliers in their new locations. It should also be mentioned that several centers of artistic production coexisted at the same time: Isfahan, Istanbul, Herat, Tabriz, Bukhara, and others. These centers, and others like Kashan, which produced ceramics with depictions of dancers, provide our primary source for scenes of oriental dance. Nevertheless, while many conservative Muslims harbor suspicions regarding the production of any figurative art, figural representational art, some of which featured scenes of dance, flourished in many areas of the Middle East. The arts we are discussing “did not always have a specifically religious purpose, sometimes far from it, and the patrons and artist were not invariably good Muslims, and occasionally not Muslims at all” (Brend 1991: 10).

Characteristics of Iranian and Ottoman Art

One of the major pitfalls in analyzing Middle Persian and Ottoman art, as I have stressed above, is that reality resides in the details, otherwise the depictions are highly stylized and formal: the ideal is preferred to the real. As Phelan suggested this detail promises more access to some kind of reality than, in fact, exists. As art historian Abolala Soudavar observes, Persian figurative visual art is characterized by “a distinct preference for the ideal over the real, for stylization over naturalistic representation” (1992:14).

Iranian and Ottoman art must be viewed differently than the art of the West. Long familiar with Western art expression, many individuals turn to the art of the Iranian and Ottoman worlds as an extension of their own viewing experiences. Not only does this art differ in markedly visual ways, but a different aesthetic is found, and even more importantly the social and historical use of art was very different. The art that I will be analyzing is, for the most part, a royal and courtly art. This is because most art was expensive to produce so that only the most wealthy and powerful could afford to subsidize it. Dynasties such as the Timurids, the Safavids, and the Ottomans established ateliers, known in Persian as ketab-khaneh or library not only for the production of miniatures, but to execute designs for a wide variety of artistic and architectural work. According to a study by Thomas Lentz (1989) these ateliers were a sort of “Madison Avenue” establishment designed to give the dynasty “a look” to enhance the way in which they presented themselves to the world, above all creating an image of power. The dozens of artists gathered together, under the supervision of a senior artist, in these establishments designed and coordinated the visual appearance of everything from the architecture of palaces and pavilions to the designs on the silks to be worn by the court. This included the designs for rugs, ceremonial tents, metal objects, and of course, the miniature paintings that were used to portray the glory of the dynasty. These were propaganda machines par excellence.

Cherished as treasures or offered as presents to kings and princes, luxury manuscripts were never widely circulated nor intended for popular reading, a relatively rare skill in the largely oral societies of the Timurids, the Safavids, and the Ottomans. Rulers shared the privilege of their production with a small circle of powerful and wealthy princes and amirs. In times of military defeat or retreat, manuscripts, and even painters and calligraphers, were often the few precious items rescued when princes were forced to abandon their treasuries. “Scribes, administrators, and historians were more familiar with calligraphy, which they used in their daily functions than with manuscript paintings, which were usually preserved in the treasury and relatively inaccessible” (Soudavar 1992:95). I think that part of the faulty idea of the wide availability of paintings in the history of the Middle East comes from the wide variety of books of reproductions of Persian and Ottoman miniatures and other art forms that have been generally available to the public, creating a false notion of their general availability within its own time frame.

In addition to the issue of Islamic view of figural representation, we must dispose of two other frankly Orientalist attitudes which commonly occur in several earlier publications on Iranian art. The first is that it has no specific or coherent style, however close study allows the student of Islamic art to quickly understand that not only can one identify by its style Persian, Ottoman and Moghul miniatures, but even where the specific miniature was produced such as Shiraz, Herat, or Isfahan. The second attitude is that it is somehow “childlike.” Robinson condescendingly states: “Try to look at these elaborate yet uncomplicated works with simple eyes of children (their appeal to children, incidentally, is strong and immediate), . . . Their beauties are all on the surface: no spiritual message or Freudian symbolism lurks beneath their exquisite forms and colors” (1965: 14).

One of the reasons for this notion of ‘child-like,’ is that historically, Iranian and Ottoman artists did not utilize Renaissance perspective, and some claim they were unable to understand it, thus, Iranian art never became “mature.” In discussing ancient Greek art Lawler indicates that perspective was, in Lawler’s words, “a problem they never solved” (1964). I think that this expresses a rather narrow Western viewpoint. This technical “problem” or, better stated, aesthetic and technical characteristic of ancient Greek art, was shared by Iranian artists. It must be emphasized that this was not a “lack” or “problem” of technical skill, but rather the depiction of perspective in the Western sense may not have been of special interest to these artists for whom other aesthetic values and techniques were of greater importance. Thomas Lentz sums up this issue:

Distinguished by the precision of its design, the artificial ordering of this space actively suppresses naturalism and three-dimensional perspective to produce an idealized, abstracted painting characterized by emotional and physical detachment. This artificial construct in the past has been characterized as charming but primitive because of its apparent lack of interest in physical reality. For the Timurids [1380-1506], however, its absence was intentional. While there are instances of three-dimensional perspective and illusionism in their painting, these options were mostly rejected in illustrative work. (1989: 171) (my emphasis)

Based on this evidence of how these two genres of artistic production, that is Persian-Ottoman painting and Orientalist paintings, can be characterized as idealized and fantasized artistic production, this limits their use as historical documents. This is not to say that information regarding certain contexts, clothing, and other aspects of dance performances cannot be gleaned from a careful study of these paintings, however, their use for documentation for movement reconstruction must be severely questioned. Uzbek scholars Polyakova and Rahimova characterize the production of miniatures: “The painter, exactly the same as the poet, did not represent the world as he saw it, he represented it as it ought to have been following the ideas of his time” (1987: 77).9 A careful study of scores of Persian miniatures and ceramic and tile depictions of dance reveals that the two or three stylized poses of the dancers does not indicate specific movements but rather that dance is occurring.10

Many choreographers in the West and in the Middle East attempt to utilize these iconographic sources, especially Persian miniature paintings, as if they were photographs, informative of a specific historic reality. Many Orientalist productions of dance have been based on such usage. An example of an attempt at such reconstruction is provided by Robert De Warren, the former artistic director and choreographer for the Mahalli Dancers, the former state folk dance ensemble of Iran, which was shut down in 1979 at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution by the Islamic Republic (which banned all dance performances). He opens his work with a well-known mural from the Chehel Setun, a famous pavilion in Isfahan. The dancers pose as a tableau vivant that comes to life and all of the dancers, including the shah, dance. This type of choreography was recently popular in Iran and currently survives, closely following De Warren’s choreographies, in the Iranian Diaspora as a staging technique for some local groups viewed on Iranian television and in formal concert settings. In an interview, Robert De Warren was asked: “Do any of the court dances survive, because there appear to be, in old Persian paintings and miniatures, considerable suggestions of some kind of court dance?” To which he replied:

In the miniatures one can find the best evidence of this. Even before the 15th century the earliest miniatures depict dance. When the Arabs invaded Iran and the Muslim religion took over, it was against the religion to play music or to dance. Through centuries of Arab rule, Persians kept hidden their feeling for music and dance, but when they were eventually free of the caliphs, these arts immediately blossomed forth and the music really developed. Each shah would encourage artists to come and live in the court and, like they did in the French courts, create a national tradition of art. Though, of course, they didn’t go as far as establishing an academy or even a system of dance, but one can trace back the musical rhythms of the period and from the miniatures, which are so clear, it is easy to compare the movement, If you place, say 20 miniatures side by side it’s easy to see how the movement developed…(1976: 30).

It is beyond the scope of this study to question the myriad incorrect, and highly Orientalist, notions that Mr. De Warren espouses in his statements, such as the idea that there was no expression of Iranian dance and music in the caliphal courts or seemingly anywhere during the period, or the concomitant notion of a sudden flowering or bursting forth of dance and melody after four-hundred years of “Sleeping Beauty”- like slumber. These notions are readily disproved by historical sources. However, taking the point of view that one can look at a series of miniature paintings and create an exact replica of a dance from them as De Warren indicates is not possible. In the first place, none of the artists painted such a series of miniatures of a single dance, each containing a separate pose that can be placed “side by side,” (one must presume he means placing them in the manner of cels in a Disney cartoon) that would enable him to enact an accurate historical reconstruction. However, miniatures were created across six centuries and the dating of many of them constitutes a special study so that finding twenty such miniatures created at the same time, each with a scene that includes dance, would pose an insurmountable obstacle to any careful scholar. De Warren adds:

Collections of his [Nezami’s] works. . .also contain a rich tapestry of miniatures…the representation of dance is very evident, the Safavid versions being the richest in movement and style. Not only has it been possible to trace actual dance movements, but also musical and percussion instruments that have long been lost. . . Each step and gesture is a reproduction of the real traditional painting. Choreographed after almost two years of research. (Mahalli Dancers of Iran 1976: n.p.)

Whether or not the creators of these artful choreographies actually believe that they can, in fact, reproduce actual historical and authentic movements and rhythmic patterns by studying miniatures, they certainly send this message to their audiences. There is, of course, no objection to any artist dreaming and creating imaginative works based on her/his own inspiration and stating that this is an imagining of another time and place, but to claim extensive research lasting months and years using a limited number of static poses and maintaining that she or he has recreated an authentic historical replica is quite another issue.

Unfortunately, most studies of Middle Eastern painting have focused on technical and stylistic elements rather that the symbolism that would have been apparent to its culturally literate viewers. Richard Ettinghausen, a scholar in Middle Eastern art noted that: “Comparatively little work has been done on other fruitful avenues of research, for instance, the exploration of the paintings, and for that matter, of other forms of figural representation as documents of history, particularly of social and cultural history” (1984: 713). Following Ettinghausen’s idea, I assert that dance does create a symbol, and for the dance historian, this may constitute its most important value. As in many areas of the Middle East, professional dancers in Iran were associated with prostitution. I would contest De Warren’s unfortunate implication that they were artists who were invited to live at court. As professional prostitutes they were summoned for court entertainments, much as dancers are hired for Egyptian weddings today: as an indispensable element for showing happiness. Rather than living at the court, Surieu indicates that during the Safavid period, when their presence was desired, an older woman was put in charge of rounding them up, maintaining order, and seeing to it that they were properly attired for their performances. Descriptions of these courtesans appear in several writings such as those of Chardin, a prominent traveler in sixteenth-century Persia. Sir Jean Chardin (in Iran 1673-1677) noted that “Dancing is reckon’d Dishonest or if you will, Infamous; and there are none by Publick Women who Dance” (1988:207). He adds that “the king’s [Abbas II] troupe consists of twenty-four, who are the most famous courtesans in the country” quoted in Surieu 1967: 150). Islamic scholar Annemarie Schimmel adds: “Because of this association between prostitution and dancing “musicians and dancers should not serve as witnesses at court” (1990: 425).

Yet, the iconographic depictions of the professional dancers give no hint of this, both male and female dancers are dressed like other individuals in the scenes, even though in reality they often wore special costumes for performances. I posit that the reason for this lies in the “gaps” and “absences” that Phelan noted. Following Geertz’s notion I suggest that messages of social class and other meanings can be “read” into these miniatures by the knowledgeable eye. Like the eternal spring, the dancers are depicted (as is almost everyone else) as young, slim, and beautiful. Since this was far from the case because many professional entertainers performed well into old age, it demonstrates that miniatures, as Polyakova and Rahimova (1987) and other scholars indicate, were peopled with types of people rather than individuals, and that these are idealized types.

I suggest that it is the symbol of dance, which is one of happiness and having a good time, that makes these representations of dance important to the dance scholar and to the oriental dancer, rather than any value in attempts at historical reconstruction of dance steps and movements. Dance is largely featured in two scenes depicted in miniatures, the majority of which depict battles and hunting, and these are royal celebrations such as enthronements and weddings. The reason for their inclusion in royal manuscripts was to indicate the ideal state that the ruler was so powerful that he could afford the time to watch dancing and enjoy a feast, rather than the true state of affairs, which was the constant vigilance of his borders, and continual suppression of political and religious rebellion that characterized most of the regimes. Indeed, the leisure to watch dance would constitute an ideal situation for any ruler. Thus, the symbol of dance as happiness sends an important message to any knowledgeable viewer of these miniatures: the dynasty is powerful and the sultan has the leisure to enjoy the dance.


1. This article is an expanded version of a paper given at the Nineteenth Annual conference of Dance History Scholars, University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota. June 13-16, 1996: 173 – 185.

2. In the context of this essay, the Middle East refers to those Islamic lands that extend from Morocco and Islamic Spain in the west, to Central Asia and Islamic Western China in the East, and includes the larger Iranian, Ottoman Turkish, and Arab world. For purposes of brevity I sometimes refer simply to the Middle East to indicate this entire region.

3. Orientalist painting is does not constitute a genre of painting style or technique, but rather refers to the subjects depicted and covers a wide range of styles such as realism, impressionism, etc. Also, although we are most familiar with French and English orientalist paintings, there was a considerable American output of orientalist paintings, particularly after the Civil War, rather later than the French and English painters. (See particularly Edwards 2000). Many of these went to France for training. Their approach was different than the French, for example. This can be seen in the avoidance of painting female nudes. Contrast, for example, the Ingres (Edwards 2000: 82) and Gerome (ibid: 129) paintings, with their titillating narratives of nude women in harems and slave markets, with the “bath” scene of American, Fredrick Arthur Bridgman (ibid: 133), who depicts a fully dressed North African mother giving her infant a bath in a copper pan. This painting could comfortably hang in a Victorian home, and, in fact, projects a Victorian sentimentality on the mother and child figures.

4. It is beyond the parameters of this paper to discuss the well-known issues of Orientalism first raised by Said and continued by other scholars. Interested readers may refer to Said (1978) for a general introduction to the topic, as well as Graham-Brown (1984), Nochlin (1983), and Edwards (2001) for discussions and analyses of Orientalism in paintings. For some of the beneficial aspects of Orientalism see MacKenzie (1995).

5. Timothy Mitchell’s Colonizing Egypt (1991) can provide the interested reader with a brilliant and penetrating assessment of the corrosive processes and effects of colonialism.

6. Fatimah Mernisi (1975) provides an excellent discussion of sexual segregation in Islamic societies from an inside, woman’s point of view.

7. The Ottoman sultanate looked to Persia for its models for both poetry and the miniatures used to illustrate it in the precious manuscripts that were produced by large ateliers attached to the palaces and dynasties, large and small, throughout the Middle East. For information regarding the production and organization of these ateliers that existed in Persia and Central Asia see Lentz (1989).

8. An odd exception is the depiction of leopards on the facade of the madrasah (seminary for religious students) in Registan Square in Samarqand. For those interested in the question of figurative art in Islamic contexts see: Brend (1991), Melikian-Chirvani (1985), Necipoglu (1995), and Papadopoulo (1979).

9. For readers interested in seeing a range of miniatures that contain scenes of dance see: And, Gray, Lentz, Papdopoulo, Polyakova and Rahimova, Robinson, Soudavar, Surieu, Titley.

10. Qajar period art (1795-1925), with its increasing western influence, breaks with the miniature school by depicting dancers in a wide variety of poses and positions. See especially Diba (1998) and Falk (1972).


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Anthony Shay is a dancer and choreographer with over forty years of performing and creative experience in staging and choreographing dances and music from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. After years of study in Iran, Shay created the AVAZ Dance Theatre and currently serves as choreographer and artistic director. In this period he has choreographed over 200 works for both his own company and on commission to other groups.

Anthony Shay earned the first Ph. D. in Dance History and Theory at the University of California, Riverside. He also holds MA degrees in anthropology from California State University, Los Angeles, and folklore and mythology and library science from UCLA. Shay has contributed numerous essays, articles, and entries to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Dance, the UNESCO Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre, Dance Research Journal, Journal of Iranian Studies, Visual Anthropology, and the Southern California History Quarterly. He is the author of Choreophobia: Solo Improvised Dance in the Iranian World (1999) and his most recent book, Choreographic Politics: State Folk Dance Ensembles, Representation and Power will be published in spring 2002 by Wesleyan University Press. With Barbara Sellers-Young, he is editing a new volume on oriental dance.

He has been the recipient of numerous fellowships and honors, including a commendation from President Bill Clinton and the entire City Council of Los Angeles in 1995 for the excellence of his choreographies and honoring his fortieth year as a choreographic artist. He is a five-time recipient of the NEA choreographic fellowship and was a NEA resident artist in La Napoule, France. He also was awarded a postdoctoral fellowship by the Social Science Research Council in 1999 to study dance in Egypt and Turkey.anthony.shay@pomona.edu

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