Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Was Roubtzoff a Socialist? A Reading of Alexander Roubtzoff’s ‘Bedouin Alya’

I don’t expect many people to be familiar with the works of Alexander Roubtzoof, first because he was one of the last orientalists, and second because his style, especially in his last works, diverged drastically from the line followed by most orientalists, particularly when painting women. Between 1914 and his death in 1949, Roubtzoff lived in Tunisia; does this make me have a soft spot for his works? Maybe. But Above all, I particularly like his focus on motion which was more refined than the depiction of stationary scenes that characterised oriental paintings in general.  Before acquiring a French citizenship through naturalisation, Roubzooff was born in Russia and was of Russian origins, but this does not necessarily make of him a socialist , (sorry, the title of the post was meant to mislead you!!). However, something in his paintings makes him an innovator.

Roubtzoff’s style departs considerably from the style of early painters of the orientalist school whose works were characterised by garish sensuality, something which also typified some of Robtozoff’s earlier paintings. His more mature works tend to illustrate realistic scenes in their naturalistic fullness and complexity. Roubtzoof, who has resided for a long time in Tunisia, is known for his depiction of rural women, Bedouins. The last of these pictures is Bedouin Alya, which he painted in 1941.

Bedouin Alya presents a very rich scene that embodies the maturity of the artist’s style. It also presents something rare in the Orientalist paintings: women at work. The environment around the Bedouin captures the intensity of the women’s toil. The earthenware pot where couscous cooks on a canoun of approximately the same colour as the pot next to the woman, the bowl between her hands, her slim, brown arms with protruding veins, and the tattoos over her arms and face. The earth’s presence is strong in the scene, in the colour of the Bedouin’s skin that imitates the brown rich earth, the earthenware and clay material around her, the vegetables, the fronds carpet covering the wall in the rear, and the very posture of the Bedouin, that could have also been meditative.

Age is visible in her parted lips and the veins in her arms; but she is by no means to be discarded or treated as a useless accessory now that she has grown old. The harmony between the colours, and the vividness of the materials, earthenware and fabric, stunningly refer to times when women held the balance of the household’s existence until the last breath. The weariness over the woman’s face is a story of toil which is not necessarily romantic or unfair, for it imparts a suffering that defies death through movement.

With her bare, slim hands, and the scattered vegetables at the tip of her fingers, the woman seems to generate a world of abundance and harness its elements in perfect legerdemain despite age. You and I may have memories of the old world of abundance; if not, we may at least have been told stories about it. A friend of mine once told me how she was brought up in a traditional Tunisian household, the kind of households that accommodated many families under its roofs, usually brothers and their wives and offspring. She told me how her grandmother used to cook the meal for the entire family, then divide it into several shares, and put each share in a bowl which she would then give to the families living in the house. Strangely, (perhaps even magically) the shares used to be sufficient for all members of the big family. Fairytales telling about small portions of food which, despite being shared with many people, last longer than bigger portions of food that are kept selfishly to oneself, may have some truth in them.

This thing has a name, it is called ‘Baraka’ in Arabic, a word literally meaning ‘blessing’, but which has a whole system of spirituality, wellbeing and wise management attached to it. I am sure the word has innumerable equivalent terms in different languages and belief systems. In most cultures women are storytellers, midwives, herbalists, and they are the earliest doctors that tribes had ever known. The kitchen we see in Roubtzoff’s painting (or it could be any corner in the house) is more a laboratory where health and wellbeing are controlled, than a place to signify women’s servitude. I am not defending the kitchen, nor am I saying that women that Roubtzoff painted enjoyed freedom because they worked inside the house instead of outside; but I am referring to a belief system where women radiated beyond their personal boundaries. If you think I am writing this to say that women are better inside the house than elsewhere, then you are probably reading the wrong post, for this is not an article about women fitting in or out of somewhere.  Probably it’s time we shift the focus back to values and to the lost spiritualities that condense the meaning of existence. Roubtzoff’s Bedouin illustrates the first of these: Work, Motion, Life.