Descriptions of faraway lands and their cultures and resources are sometimes talked about as ‘exotic’ as a way of expressing appreciation and unfamiliarity at the same time. An example of this is Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra’s attempt to break into the U.S. music scene through her collaboration with Pitbull in the song ‘Exotic’ (clue’s in the name!) In postcolonial studies, the concept of exoticism challenges this way of framing the other by critiquing the assumptions about the power to decide on what is foreign and what is familiar.
In Orientalism, Palestinian-American literary critic Edward Said discusses the simultaneous fascination with and fear of the “Eastern Other” that is evidenced by western literary and artistic tropes and traditions. More recently, Graham Huggan’s work on what he terms the ‘postcolonial exotic’ considers the ways in which postcolonial authors and their works are marketed by the cosmopolitan cultural circuits of the west as desirable representatives of cultures to be consumed.
There are, of course, examples of writers, artists and others utilising the trope of the “exotic Other” to their advantage, and this agency should not be overlooked. However, when framing colonial encounters as the discovery of exotic peoples, places and practices, museum practitioners should be mindful of the ways in which the term has been used to connote a sense of centre, from which all else is framed as Other.