“Parfums of the Orient”, an exhibition without much sensuality

Paris. An exhibition on smells is a challenge because it involves showing what, in essence, is invisible. However, this is what commissioners Agnès Carayon and Hanna Boghanim tried, at the Arab World Institute (IMA). The route alternates documentary sections and other more olfactory sections, with devices that allow visitors to smell the raw materials (musk, incense, rose, oud wood), then the perfumes composed by the British nose Christopher Sheldrake and the scents oriental cuisine. On this point the exhibition is successful, and everything is done so that the scents are not overpowering. “These are devices with dry diffusion which prevent odors from dispersing and the air extraction system in the rooms also works in this sense,” indicates Agnès Carayon. This “olfactory narration”presented by the curators, takes the visitor along the roads of incense, then into the Arab city, to the hammam and into the family home, literally leading them by the tip of their nose.

A patchy and summary journey

However, the relationship between documents, heritage works, technical information and works of art does not really work. Visually first of all, the exhibition displays sober colors in dark green, ocher, dark gray and beige tones. According to Agnès Carayon, “these colors were chosen to preserve the balance between the heritage works and the other pieces on display”, and not with the aim of favoring the olfactory over the visual. Apart from the section on the souks where ocher dominates, the whole remains very austere for an exhibition on a subject as voluptuous as perfume. This austerity, however, suits the (reduced) section on the hammam, where white curtains frame a sensual video on the women in the hammam by Yumna Al Arashi and a pile of Aleppo soaps which smell naturally. Likewise, the theme of the sacred fits well with this sobriety which highlights two false fonts in resin and cinnamon by Mehdi-Georges Lahlou and a beautiful work on wood from the 16th century (Macedonia). This section focuses on the presence of perfumes and incense in ancient and monotheistic religions, but without mentioning Islam: why not address the place of perfume in the practices of the early times of Islam, since Mohammed did he himself advocate the use of perfume?

The imbalance is accentuated by the lack of depth of the general statement which touches on the subjects while providing little information. Thus the section on distillation techniques is limited to an explanatory panel, a copy of a still and a perfume carousel (created by Christopher Sheldrake). Agnès Carayon justifies these choices by specifying that “the perfume manufacturing processes have been deliberately simplified”, but the visitor doesn’t learn much here. Why not display as a counterpoint the medieval manuscripts of chemistry treatises present at the beginning of the tour? The first room is also the only one to give the historical context, with ancient pieces (Sumerian cuneiform tablets, camel figurines) and medieval pieces which show “the sustainability of practices linked to perfumes”, specify the commissioners.

Perfume of eroticism

Throughout the thematic tour, old pieces sometimes add a little depth, such as the superb collection of glass bottles by Nasser D. Khalili, or a bather’s cap (Algeria, 19th century) in the small “Hammam” section. . The journey struggles to anchor itself in the chronology: contemporary practices, for example, are not mentioned, except by a video on the transmission of cooking recipes between generations.

In the small section on eroticism, the past is evoked by manuscripts, but more numerous literary references would have enriched the works, including the magnificent bridal set made of jasmine buds by Reem Al Nasser: the description of a perfume is indeed a genre in itself in Arabic and Persian literature, with assumed erotic connotations. Agnès Carayon indicates that it was planned to broadcast sound extracts from oriental poems, but that this was not possible.

The visitor feels an impression of heterogeneity from room to room, particularly in front of large format works such as the photographs of Vladimir Antaki [voir ill.]. Agnès Carayon explains that “this series is a commission from the IMA, which wanted to recreate the atmosphere of the Arab souks”. These photos of perfume and spice stalls struggle to come to life because no scent accompanies them – and there is also a lack of the typical sounds of the souks. In comparison, Hicham Berrada’s installation with large jasmine plants under a window brings out a poetic sensuality. As jasmine blooms at night, the artist reversed the cycle of light so that the flowers perfume the exhibition in the darkness. The subtle scent of jasmine is mixed with the smell of petals which fade and rot over time, like a metaphor for the process of composing a perfume.

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