Non-Specific Exotica

Since I’ve been looking at orientalist stereotypes, evocations of the mysterious East, this seems like a good time to take a look at this set:

Not Asiatic, but still evocative of orientalism and the mysterious other.  I think these are maybe supposed to represent some kind of Africans–or Polynesians, or Indonesians or native South Americans, something equally else exotic.  Whoever they are, they are defined  by the fact that they are “not like us,” us in this case being the people who these shakers might unironically appeal to.  While fairly simple and uncomplicated figures, they reveal a surprising range of the signs that mark a person as alien and other.  they appear to be naked.  They carry bowls on their head or have bones in their hair, as supposed savages often do in cartoons. They are dark-complected and thick-lipped enough that I suspect that real people with darker complexions, even those who collect salt and paper sets, are unlikely to be anything but distressed by the cliched nature of their depiction of people of colour.  In confirmation of their orientalism, furthermore one appears to be staring blankly in wide-eyed idiocy while the other closes her eyes as proof of her inherent sloth and laziness.

They raise, once more, the question of why, if you might actually give any credence to the negative stereotypes these figures evoke, would you want to have such depictions on your dining table and shake salt and/or pepper from them on your food?  (Unless, of course, you are an oppositional curator like me–see my earlier posting on that topic.  And even at that I have to worry about my willingness to own and display such objects even if I feel a vast distance from the values they represent and evoke–am I confirming in my implied faith that they can withstand or endure an ironic oppositional glance my sense of the stereotypical willingness of the groups they represent to take punishment and less than humanly survive it?).  There’s certainly a element of supercilious superiority in the way in which these figures act to diminish the reality of people of other countries and cultures: the depiction of them in such a miniaturized form, the implied cuteness of their being so harmlessly exotic and abnormal, the safely colonialist freedom to mark them as exotic and other and yet harmless enough to own and use for mundane purposes like seasoning food, the fact that as hard ceramic figures they can be safely manhandled without much threat to the person doing the manhandling.  Or even, given the lack of fragility of the material they’re made of, the fact that manhandling is little threat to the objects themselves.  And if you drop them and they should happen by chance to actually break, well, so what, they were just cheap ornaments anyway and can easily be replaced by a pair of equally long-suffering and othered aboriginals or cute harmless children.

Published by pernodel

Children’s literature critic and author of books for children

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