Visual Arts

Must See Exhibit: Look to the East

Stunning decorative arts from Asia, Africa and the Middle East are showcased in this awe-inspiring compilation at MFAH.

By Jenn Nguyen July 18, 2016

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Houston’s Museum of Fine Arts travels back to the 19th and 20th centuries with Look to the East, a new exhibition on display now. The selection honors decorative art motifs from North African, Middle Eastern and Pan-Asian cultures and their influence within Western works from 1870 to 1920.

More than 40 Asian and African-inspired decorative pieces, adorned with styles originating from India to Japan, emphasize the impact that the far East had on the West’s prolific creative forces. Most of the featured works are taken from MFAH’s extensive permanent collection of Decorative Arts.

Christine Gervais, Associate Curator of Decorative Arts at Rienzi and the organizing curator for Look to the East, spoke with Asian and Islamic arts experts to gauge a better understanding of the various traditions and their connection to the showcased Western pieces.

Many of the articles—which include an ornate, wood-carved cabinet from 1905 and a Japanese-inspired Tiffany & Co. silver tea set—honor ethereal, nature-themed motifs generally found in East Asian decorative art. Lotus flowers, bamboo stalks and cherry blossoms adorn numerous vases, mirrors and serving utensils.

Maghreb and Middle Eastern influences can also be seen in intricately carved wood furniture and iridescent chargers, while allusions to Indian customs are found in detailed textiles and wallpaper designs.

While the spotlighted pieces are heavily influenced by Moorish and Asian cultures, the exhibition emphasizes that the items are produced by Western designers. Gervais notes that East doesn’t intend to expunge the traditional styles of origin, but rather celebrate and pay homage to them. East highlights the globalism of decorative art and how trade impacted the “exchange of craft” throughout the world.

“Some of these technical skills are still highly prized,” Gervais adds. These [Eastern] motifs are so ingrained that they’re still here [in today’s decorative works].” 

It may be difficult to feature Eastern-inspired, Western-created works without questioning the boundary between paying respects to the craft of origin and passing Eastern traditions off as one’s own. Gervais understands and stresses the distinction with this exhibition.

“Cultural appropriation is the eradication or loss of the source,” Gervais explains. “The pieces [in the exhibition] are upfront about being referential and are celebrations of the sources.”

Authentic Eastern decorative articles were more difficult to obtain for those who are not part of the elite who could afford them. Thus, these western renderings are not only historical markers of how interconnected the world has become through art, but they also were the beginning of how opulent styles became more accessible for the middle class.

“The artists could express themselves [with these pieces], but there was also a market for these works of art.” Gervais says. “I can only imagine entering a house filled with these and how beautiful it must have been.” 

Look to the East. Thru Oct 23. $13—18. Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet. 713-639-7300. 

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