Screen-grab from ABC newsreel footage, as featured in the Guardian‘s front-page slide show.

Osama bin Laden wasn’t in mountain caves. He was in a mansion in Abbottabad, a major Pakistan city two hours north of the country’s capitol, Islamabad. Bin Laden had been there for more than six months.

Part evil-lair, part self-imposed prison, part luxury – the mansion is a major part of the story and questions about “who protected Osama bin Laden over the past decade” will no doubt follow.

There’s a few things going on here, so let’s start with the most simple. “You made you bed, now you must lie in it die in it.” Anyone? No? (To be clear, I don’t know if this was OBL’s bed, or even if he was killed in this room).

Nonetheless, the blood on the floor tells us this bedroom is a site of ambush; the bed is an object of a stormed house. Yet, this image is not distinguishable in any meaningful way from all the other images of house raids in America’s 21st century wars.

THE VISUAL CULTURE OF BEDS

Contemporary concerns have been about sex (the discarded condoms of Tracey Emin’s My Bed proved her as honest as she is crass) and violence (or maybe Rauschenberg was just about disorder?)

Historically, the image of the bed has been co-opted for highly political purposes. And interestingly, the bed played a central role in the dissemination of images of Arabic regions round Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.

Artists under patronage painted aristocracies, noble beasts, mythologies, and Christian narratives. The boudoir was rarely mentioned; acts of the bedroom hidden. For titillation, commissioned artists were sent abroad. Orientalist Art has little to do with the distant lands it “depicts” but most to do with the obsessions of artists and patrons with harems and the sexual behaviours of people of colour.*

Without wanting to over-simplify, Orientalist Art is – at both conscious and subconscious levels – the projection of suppressed sexual desire upon an “Other” group. The subject has little or no means to correct the misrepresentations. Furthermore, any corrections by the subject would disrupt the self-serving narratives of the distant audience.

Centuries of visual manipulations and stubborn visual usury between the West and the rest, with the bed as the visual anchor to the lazy indifference, are wrapped up in the unorthodox war photograph above. If the image does indeed depict the bed of Osama bin Laden (the personification of cultural antagonism, violent opposition, the most distant of “Others”) then, I at least, identify some irony therein.

“The Siesta,” by Frederick Arthur Bridgman (1847-1928), oil on canvas, 11 ¼ by 17 inches, 1878, private collection, courtesy of the Spanierman Gallery, New York

One final thing. A bed is a place of rest, a grave is a final resting place. Western allies worried any grave would become an extremists’ pilgrimage site, so Osama bin Laden’s body was buried at sea. But have they avoided the problem? Might this Abbottabad mansion and this bedroom not become places of pilgrimage?

*Orientalist Art tends to refer to North Africa, but includes South Spain and the Middle East. The fetishisation of women of colour was also foisted upon Native people in North America and across the British colonies of the Southern Hemisphere.
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