“What can I say about it all? What can I write you? As yet I am scarcely over the initial bedazzlement…each detail reaches out to grip you; it pinches you; and the more you concentrate on it the less you grasp the whole.” Gustave Flaubert, letter from Cairo, January 1850
The celebrated Victorian artist and Orientalist, Lord Frederic Leighton was a close friend of Sir Richard Burton (first translator of the Kama Sutra) and, besides being Burton’s friend, he mixed socially with a number of members of what was to become the Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI). The RAI has a collection of photographs of Burton, including an extraordinary set of post-mortem photographs of him and an oil painting dressed as “an Arab”. It was the connections between Burton and Leighton, and between anthropology and Orientalism, that initially intrigued me and led to research in the collections at Leighton House and the RAI. Within the house Leighton designed and had built for himself in a fashionable and respectable part of west London, is a fantastical recreation of an imaginary Orient – the Arab Hall. Through the sound of its trickling fountain, and the dazzling effect of hundreds of patterned Islamic tiles, it involves you in a sensual experience – you do not view the Arab Hall, you are immersed in it. The idea for Presence was to take this phenomenon alongside the archival research as the starting point for a series of interventions in the permanent displays at Leighton House that would make apparent some of the connections between anthropology and Orientalism. Historical material from the RAI photographic collections would be ‘inserted’ into the permanent displays to explode their quiet certitude. Through invoking a series of presences that I felt were otherwise missing from Leighton House the exhibition would effectively re-contextualise the house and its displays in a new light.