Blog / Observational Controversy

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By Brooke Hartley

How does one dissect an observation? That is the question that lingers following my visit with the Nasher Museum’s new installation of David Roberts’ lithographs. As a 19th-Century printer that gave the Western public a rare glimpse of Jerusalem and the Holy Land, Roberts’ works mimic the character of a post card, eliciting fascination and curiosity by offering just a small taste of life in a foreign environment.

I found myself particularly drawn to these works after taking a cultural anthropology course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last semester, studying the origins of the conflict and grappling with the clash between the gaze of Western Orientalism and the Eastern counter-narrative. While Roberts’ prints certainly predate the violence with which modern audiences are familiar, his choice of subjects and the nature of his images point to a foundation for future cultural aggression. In this way, to truly appreciate the significance of the exhibition within its historical context, one must see Jerusalem through Roberts’ specific gaze in order to delineate reality from bias.

In illustration, a casual observer of the exhibition will instantly note the dominance of Christian religious sites and settings in Roberts’ prints, whereas Muslim landmarks are notably absent. While Roberts had to be sensitive to the demands of his Western audiences, the dearth of Islamic imagery in his prints underscores the ongoing sentiment of the supremacy of Christian and Jewish interests in the Holy Land. In a similar fashion, native Palestinians appear nomadic and have an almost animal-like quality as Roberts uses them to decorate the scenery within a largely undeveloped landscape. Comparatively, many pro-Israeli factions cite the absence of a civilized Palestinian population and the social immaturity of communities in the Holy Land as justification for the formation and preservation of the Israeli nation. The prints’ barren backgrounds coupled with common archetypes of Palestinian life provide imagery for these ascertations. Whether these kinds of depictions are valid or detrimental is a question I won’t attempt to debate, but recognize that there are many opposing views on the subject.

Thus, what can we determine about the particular perspective Roberts brought to these prints and the intentions behind them? I doubt there is a single answer. Come see the exhibition and make your own conclusions.

IMAGE: David Roberts, “Jerusalem, Church of the Purification,” 1842-1844. Color lithograph. Collection of the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University.

Brooke Hartley is a rising junior at Duke University.

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