Gen Doy in her book on Drapery, classicism and barbarism in visual culture published by I B Tauris in 2002, writes:
One contemporary artwork which invites spectators to critically approach the exhibition of ‘Oriental’ cultures and their textiles in museums is the performance by Karun Thakar outside the Museum of Mankind, London on 18 March 1997 (plate 26). This performance also suggests that draped and wrapped figures can also be those ‘orientalised’ bodies who are trapped and made speechless and invisible in their clothing. Once colonial culture and its scientists and photographers have presented us with a particular view of colonised ‘Orientals’ the latter become trapped in that particular vision. Outside the museum, the artist was wrapped and tied up in various different sorts of material, including a nineteenth-century Indian bedcover and string. Other smaller bundles of textiles were also placed on the pavement. The artist had originally hoped to work inside the museum, in critical dialogue with the collection.
However when the museum declined to give permission for this, Thakar decided to undertake a performance work outside with a number of collaborators. This involved the artist being wrapped up in oriental textiles turned inside out, to show their worn, practical side. Usually the richly embroidered side is exhibited in museums as if the textiles were pictures. The tears and worn bits of the textiles were exposed to view. Collaborators of the artist knelt down beside him on the pavement to examine close up the ‘specimen’ before them. The climax of the performance was completely unplanned by the artist. As passers-by gathered to watch the performance, police cars arrived on the scene and a full-scale bomb alert ensued since someone had reported a ‘suspicious package’ in the area. This turned out not to have been the ‘wrapped’ artist, but a package in a litter bin.
A second photograph of the performance shows an interesting juxtaposition of the artist and a collaborator in front of the museum facade beneath a statue honouring the French natural scientist Cuvier. Cuvier is clothed in a combination of nineteenth-century costume and classical drapery, which is added to give prestige, authority and nobility to both his personal appearance his scientific discoveries. Cuvier was among a large number of scientists who believed in an evolutionary hierarchy of ‘races’. In the early nineteenth century, he performed an autopsy on the body of the so-called Hottentot Venus, Saartjie Baartmann, who had been exhibited in European cities for several years before she died in 1815 in Paris. As Gilman puts it, ‘Cuvier presentation of the “Hottentot Venus” (autopsy findings – GD] forms the major signifier for the image of the Hottentot as sexual primitive in the nineteenth century.’ Her large buttocks and well-developed genitals were seen as scientific proof that black people were closer to animal nature and therefore on a lower stage of the evolutionary ladder than whites.
The two artists dressed in ‘oriental’ textile clothing stand beneath Cuvier, whose theories ‘proved’ that their biological identity was inferior. Cuvier’s statue shows him posed like a Roman of the ‘noble race’ wearing a toga as he stands to deliver a rhetorically refined exposition of his theories, while resting his hand on a human skull, another part of the body which could be measured and classified along with the cultures produced by colonised peoples.
Karun Thakar is also aware of his own position as a seller of oriental rugs and textiles, which helps to support his work as an artist. His position as someone who makes a living from the Western interest in oriental artefacts, and who, at the same time, is critically aware of colonialist culture, is complex one which informs his art practice. In particular, in relation to photographic images of de Clérambault, his performance indicates how oriental draperies and textiles can, in certain situations, function as an oppressive aspect of culture, which functions to muffle and imprison people in particular situations. Of course the main type of oriental drapery which has caused most debate over its oppressive and/or liberating functions is the veil.