Grasping the Exotic

 Gauguin's Arearea

Gauguin’s Arearea

A friend once accused academics like me, who, aloft from our ivory towers, offer up criticism without solving problems.

Point taken.

Vocabulary used in academic writing is annoying, a nod to a coterie of snobs speaking a private language.

Readings are interrogated. Concepts are deconstructed.

The writing can be so obscure you need a chisel and mallet to extract the core meaning.

Language can simultaneously unlock treasures while creating barriers.

I’ve read about how advertising, for example, fetishizes a woman’s body. That means we’re obsessed with the body.

But we’re also obsessed with the language that describes our thoughts in academic circles. Here’s an example from a recent manuscript:

While critical race theorists interrogate the ways in which race has been historically and socially constructed, performance theorists investigate the ways in which these constructions are scripted and performed under the force of hegemony. The theory of performativity is rooted in the speech act theory of J.L. Austin who brings attention to “performative utterances,” words that actually make things happen.

You need help to chip away at what the author is trying to say.

I thought about race theory when we floated through French museums last week and found Paul Gauguin’s paintings of indigenous women from Polynesian isles.

His work is said to romanticize native images, thus joining the company of Edward S. Curtis’ haunting photographs of the “vanishing Indian” and the nubile Native American princesses depicted on “collectable” plates by the Bradford Exchange.

Such images are critiqued because they make females we see—through the lens of the artist (the so-called male gaze)—appear to be romanticized, fetishized and objectified.

But in the halls of the Musée d’Orsay, on the banks of the Seine, where we absorbed Gauguin’s artwork, I could imagine the French ex-patriot sitting atop a stool on a sun-drenched afternoon, daubing a canvas with oils while dark-haired denizens played with dogs or picked fruit.

Gauguin’s images appear authentic. Real. So I release from my mind the critical language about power, and simply breathe in the artist’s rendering of a warm afternoon on the beach.

I celebrate today’s holiday by letting go of my critical prism. Happy Christmas.

[With apologies to Susan E. McGrade, whose dissertation I found on the web after searching for the words fetish, hegemony and interrogation, from

Image by Paul Gauguin titled Arearea (1892) from


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, Indian, journalism, native american, Native Science, science communication and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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