And that — the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. Orientalism
is defined by literary theorist Edward Said as the way in which imperialist Western cultures have inaccurately and patronizingly interpreted the “East.” It paints China, as well as other Asian, Middle Eastern, and North African countries, as romantic and exotic, dangerous and intoxicating. At face value, it doesn't seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (I actually texted a picture of the Mao display case to my mother, who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, and she responded with “Dead people. It’s not fashion. I won’t wear it.”)
However, the Met awkwardly proposes that Orientalism can be positive: “[We present] a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. As if by magic, the distance between East and West, spanning perspectives that are often perceived as monolithic and diametrically opposed, diminishes. What emerges is an active, dynamic two-way conversation, a liberating force of cross-cultural combination, and representation.” Yeah. Magic
In a time when information sharing is quicker and easier than ever, a conversation about misinterpretation is incredibly relevant. Walking through the exhibit with fellow journalists, I had some truly powerful conversations about history and context that were enlightening in ways you always hope a museum exhibit can be. But, that whole bit about it being a two-way street? About how it can be cross-cultural and encourage creativity? When the entire exhibit only featured a small handful of actual Chinese designers, two Chinese-American designers, and one Chinese-American fashion muse
who spent her whole life trying to break out of the Oriental box Hollywood placed her in, it seems like an inflated statement to make. A conversation only works between two equal, mutually respectful entities — so what is it called when one of them is a work of fiction made up by the other?