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The Art in Disgraced

by:  Phaedra Scott at 01/07/2016

In Disgraced, Emily creates a portrait of her husband Amir, inspired by Diego Velazquez’s Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Emily’s role in Disgraced and the explicit inclusion of  Portrait of Juan de Pareja’s in Ayad Akhtar’s script provide fodder for a debate on artistic appropriation – where is the line, if there is one at all, between honoring another culture and exploiting it?

Portrait of Juan de Pareja, Velazquez
Portrait of Juan de Pareja (1650)
Diego Velazquez 

Let’s start with the Portrait of Juan de Pareja. Diego Velazquez was a court painter to Phillip IV of Spain and was sent to Rome to acquire paintings. During his travels he brought his assistant and slave Juan de Pareja, and painted his portrait to be displayed at a later exhibition. Juan de Pareja was freed in 1654 and became a painter in his own right. The Portrait of Juan de Pareja is housed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and is considered one of the finest pieces at the museum and one of the most controversial.

While the subject of the painting is a man of Moorish decent, the implication of their relationship is a subject of fascination. The portrait was received with much acclaim, and serves as a window into Velazquez’ personal life — Juan de Pareja gazes directly at the viewer, which gives him inherent strength. The portrait shows a man painted with dignity. Velazquez treated the portrait with as much care as he would have with his royal subjects. In Disgraced, Emily is drawn to the care Velazquez has of Pareja, a care that Emily attempts to emulate in her own portrait of Amir.

The Red Room, Matisse
The Red Studio (1911)
Henri Matisse 

While Ayad Akhtar intentionally includes Velazquez’s Portrait in Disgraced, Velazquez is not alone. In the play, Akhtar’s characters name-drop other artists who were inspired by Islamic imagery, including Henri Matisse and Pierre Bonnard. Matisse particularly loved Islamic art and its patterning techniques and use of illusion. He was inspired to borrow from this art form to create his own work, one example being The Red Studio.

Like Matisse, Bonnard was similarly influenced by of Islamic art and its use of flat, lithographic areas of color, and his art also includes strong Japanese influences. 

Interior with Flowers, Bonnard
Interior with Flowers (1919)
Pierre Bonnard

To see the type of art Matisse and Bonnard were influenced by, check out the online archives of Islamic art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Bonnard and Matisse are examples of two white painters being influenced by Islamic art, but is Emily’s character any different as a contemporary artist? What is the value of white artists being influenced by Islamic art? Is it a sign of the universality of Islamic art? Or is it an example of appropriation? To see how the characters of Disgraced navigate this artistic question, be sure to catch Disgraced, running from January 8 – February 7 at the Avenue of the Arts / BU Theatre.

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