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LUCIS Fall Fellow 2017: Mercedes Volait

LUCIS is happy to welcome Fall Fellow Mercedes Volait to Leiden. Volait will provide five lectures and five masterclasses concerning the movements of art across the Mediterranean.

Taking things seriously: Patterns of art consumption across the modern Mediterranean

The study of collecting, and disposing of, art (broadly understood) on both sides of the Mediterranean throughout the 19th and 20th centuries reveals a wide range of phenomena, concerns and entanglements that invite to develop new frameworks to understand the appropriation of art across cultures beyond the ones suggested by postcolonial theory. Early displays of “Oriental art” in Paris were encouraged by national anxieties, rather than by colonial politics: the promotion of industrial arts and the melancholy of history. The Islamic antiques collected by travelers or residents in the Middle East in the 1870s were frequently related to the fashioning of elaborate aesthetic interiors, of “living museums”, a craze of French origin that lasted many decades and inspired indigenous achievements as well. Gendered politics of the self eventually weighted more than Empire-building in the process. The demand for historic artworks was tightly intertwined with supply, itself favored by aspirations to change, obsolescence or cash demand; a market for curios and old artifacts was already striving by mid-19th century in Cairo and Damascus, and the production of Islamic-style fittings and furniture soon followed. Antiquarianism and object-based research in the formative years of Islamic art history favored art acquisitions by scholars. The way in which Middle Eastern collectors recently made Orientalist art their own in order to “recapture the culture” is a further illustration of the ambivalence of categories such as self and other in art cross-consumption; as ever, circulations and “contact zones”, such as the auction house, perform decisive roles.

What ultimately emerges from the web of people, situations and aspirations involved in the process of acquiring, displaying, and “deaccessioning”, artefacts and artworks in connection with the Middle East is a richer and more paradoxical panorama than the one delineated by conventional cultural criticism and the paradigm of plunder. The study of specific situations and contextualized objects should contribute to deepen our understanding of the social life of art and material culture in the modern Mediterranean, and the dynamics of their trajectories.

About Mercedes Volait

Mercedes Volait is CNRS Research professor at INHA (Institut national d’histoire de l’art, Paris) and a specialist of Orientalism in architecture and antiquarianism in connection with Cairo during the long nineteenth century. Her education has been in architecture (Diploma, 1982), Middle Eastern studies (PhD, 1993) and Art history (“Habilitation”, 2007).  An associate researcher to the Research Department of the Victoria and Albert museum since 2015, she currently works on the project  “19th century Islamic art collecting in Egypt and Syria”.

Her recent books include Fous du Caire [Crazy about Cairo: Eccentrics, architects and art lovers in Egypt (1867-1914)] (2009), and Maisons de France au Caire [French Diplomatic Architecture in Cairo. Reusing Mamluk and Ottoman Fragments in Modern Buildings] (2012). She is the current editor of the digital journal ABE- Architecture beyond Europe.

Practical information

The lectures are free to attend, no registration is required. 

The masterclasses are open to advanced undergraduate students, graduate students and PhD students from Leiden University and require registration. Send an email to lucis@hum.leidenuniv.nl with the masterclasses you would like to attend and you will receive the reading material required for the course(s). 

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