""...displayed to serve the basest uses."

Exhibiting: July 20, 2017 - January 1, 2018

HERE: Locating Contemporary Canadian Artists

Aga Khan Museum 

"... and their abdominal muscles were the only portions of anatomy of mind which showed any cultivation, while these, to their shame, were displayed to serve the basest uses." - James Buel 'The Three Dancing Girls from Egypt" 1894

i.       10-12 drawings on carbon paper, 10 x 12 in

ii.      Archival postcard depicting a meeting of the Board of Lady Managers, September, from The Fair Women, 1981, Academy               Chicago, World's Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893.

iii.      Found medical image of abdominal muscles.

“Belly dancing performances are entangled with the imperial engagements that link the [West] and the Middle East and reveal a deeper politics of imperialism, racialization, and feminism in this moment of...empire.”                                                                                                                                  – Sunaina Maira

                   Belly Dancing: Arab-face, Orientalist Feminism, and U.S. Empire (American Quarterly 2008)


This installation is about the first contact that North America had with Middle-Eastern folk dance as introduced at the Streets of Cairo Pavillion during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. ‘Little Egypt’ as the dancer was known, shocked and appalled audiences due to the movement of her stomach (using the specific abdominal muscle seen here), while also being the most popular and profitable act at the Chicago World’s Fair. The orientalism and cultural economy of Little Egypt led to nearly 100 years of dancers in North America mimicking this style of dance, which became popularly better known as ‘belly dance.’ 


Nahed Mansour’s work critiques how we consume and appropriate cultural stereotypes, and explores the history of ‘Little Egypt’ who introduced what became called “belly dancing” or the ‘Hootchie-Cootchie’ at the Streets of Cairo Pavilion during the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. This style of dancing, which was inspired by Middle-Eastern folk dance known as Raqs Beledi or Raqs Sharqi was highly shocking and titillating for the Victorian-era audiences of the World’s Fair, contributing to the emergence of burlesque. What was initially a folk dance was transformed into a highly sexualized performance in North America. Little Egypt was in fact several women who were protested against by the Board of Lady Managers of the Chicago World’s Fair; they wanted to ban the act entirely as well as the pavilion. However, the Little Egypt act became the most popular, scandalous, and economically profitable performance at the 1893 fair. In consideration of this kind of culture being a form of economy, Mansour retraces these bodies and their forms directly onto carbon paper, which is used widely in many countries to make receipts of monetary transactions. By using a tool to scratch onto the delicate carbon paper, a negative of the drawing emerges, like a white shadow. The carbon transfer paper inscribes drawings of various women, some whom are Middle Eastern and some American, reproducing the “idea” of belly dancing in a cosmetic fashion. As one looks through each drawing, discrepancies emerge in the shape of the body, the manner in which poses are held, and the features of the dancers; the drawings communicate a direct cultural appropriation of a dance that was considered by conservative North American audiences as a de-moralizing expression of the “accumulated rottenness of the Orient”. Regardless of its imputed ‘rottenness,’ many dancers adopted the name ‘Little Egypt,’ capitalizing on the act for their own benefit. 

Little Egypt ultimately represents female labourers – exploited, sexualized, and debased by the society around them. Mansour, an Egyptian-Canadian who lived for many years in the Gulf, investigates the role of the migrant body, racial identity, and relationships to popular culture in her larger pursuit of looking at how gendered and racial identities are both performed, consumed, and circulated.

Using Format