Winter 2017By Rebecca Anne Proctor
Portrait of Lalla Essaydi, 2009. Photo: Lajos Geenen
Their stares haunt as much as they invite, piercing the viewer with exacting stillness. The enchanting subjects in Lalla Essaydi’s photographs represent the multifaceted identity of Muslim women even as they evoke Orientalist-art clichés of the exotic East. “My work reaches beyond Islamic culture to include the Western fascination with it,” the Moroccan-born New York artist explains.
Essaydi carefully stages each photograph, posing her subjects to mimic works by French neoclassical painters such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jean-Léon Gérôme. Only she subverts those historical references by superimposing Islamic calligraphy in henna on her subjects’ bodies, metaphorically veiling the women in their language and culture. In her series “Harem,” women are wrapped in robes adorned with henna and Islamic tile patterns that echo the exquisite decoration of their architectural surroundings. These solo figures project self-assuredness, reclaiming the harem as a symbol of female empowerment.
“Perhaps by invoking the Orientalist gaze of Western male painters, my work can promote in Western women a greater sense of commonality with their Arab counterparts,” says Essaydi, whose photographs are in several current and upcoming exhibitions, including “I Am,” a traveling survey of work by female artists at the Center for the Arts in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, from January 12 to February 25, 2018. Certainly, her photographs offer up timely messages about the need for greater cross-cultural understanding. lallaessaydi.com
Harem Revisited #38, 2012 from the Harem Revisited, 2012-13 series. Photo: ©Lalla Essaydi. Courtesy of the Artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich
Harem #14C, 2009. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich
For her 2012 Bullets Revisited #3, the clothing and fabrics were sewn with thousands of bullet casings. Photo: Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich
Les Femmes du Maroc: Light of the Harem, 2008. Photo: ©Lalla Essaydi. Courtesy of the Artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich
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Lalla Essaydi’s (b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco) art champions women. Central to the artist’s vision is a unique synthesis of personal and historical catalysts. As a Muslim woman who grew up in Morocco, raised her family in Saudi Arabia, and relocated to France and finally the United States, the artist has profound firsthand perspectives into cross-cultural identity politics. Essaydi also weaves together a rich roster of culturally embedded materials and practices—including the odalisque form, Arabic calligraphy, henna, textiles, and bullets—to illuminate the narratives that have been associated with Muslim women throughout time and across cultures. By placing Orientalist fantasies of Arab women and Western stereotypes in dialogue with lived realities, Essaydi presents identity as the culmination of these legacies, yet something that also expands beyond culture, iconography, and stereotypes.
The performative act of inscribing women’s bodies and spaces with calligraphy is a vital part of Essaydi’s approach, emphasizing the ongoing, active, and collaborative process of becoming and creating. Since her first major series Converging Territories (2002-4), Essaydi has used henna to envelope the women in her photographs in Arabic calligraphy, a skill she could not learn in school due to her gender. Henna is a form of decoration that marks some of the happiest and most significant moments of a Muslim woman’s life, and Essaydi elevates this tradition—conventionally regarded as a “woman’s craft”—into a radical act of visual and linguistic artistry. The stream-of-consciousness, poetic script includes biographical details relating to the artist’s and models’ experiences as women. Essaydi’s series Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-7) continued to engage with these approaches while expanding to also question the historical representation of Arab women in the Western art canon, referencing the Orientalist imagery of 19th century artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérôme. Her reinterpretation is a strong statement of the power of artistic representation to influence identity. In her Harem series (2009), set in a lavish yet isolating harem in Morocco, Essaydi addresses the complex social and physical confines of Muslim womanhood. Her most recent series Bullets (2009-14) introduces a new material for the artist—silver and gold bullet casings—which she has woven together to create glittering gowns of armor.
Essaydi’s work deliberately incorporates and invites perspectives from many angles. “In my art,” Essaydi explains, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”
Essaydi spent her most foundational years living in traditional Muslim society in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. She attended École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris before earning her BFA from Tufts University and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, both in Boston. Her work has been exhibited around the world, including at the San Diego Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Bahrain National Museum; and Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial, United Arab Emirates. Essaydi’s work is represented in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; and the Louvre Museum, Paris, amongst many others. The most recent text of her work, Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures, was published in 2015 by ACR Edition, in addition to a selection from her series Les Femmes du Maroc published by powerHouse Books in 2009. The artist currently lives in Boston and Marrakesh.
View the artist's CV