Essaydis Paintings

While Ms. Essaydi changes her source images, stripping them of their luminous colors, removing male figures or replacing them with women, and covering up the nudity, I am not sure that she always transforms them enough. Too often her photographs look like an exercise in voyeurism, replicating rather than revising the stereotypical imagery she is working with.

Take, for example, “Les Femmes du Maroc #1” (2005), based on a Delacroix painting, “Algerian Women in Their Apartment” (1834), depicting three Arab women as slaves imprisoned in an exotic and secluded harem. Ms. Essaydi simplifies the setting by eliminating the colorful draperies and props, but her picture still retains some of the languorous sensuality of the original Orientalist painting.

My problem with these photographs is that Ms. Essaydi, by retaining the basic compositions, gestures and general style of dress of the original paintings, often leaves her women stuck in the same Orientalist fantasy that she purports to critique. Instead of changing the way in which we see Arab women, these photographs revive old-fashioned stereotypes.

“Les Femmes du Maroc #4” (2005) is an instantly striking photograph based on “The Slave Market” (circa 1867), one of Gérôme’s best and most famous paintings, which shows a slave woman having her teeth inspected by some prospective buyers. It depicts a degrading scene, the woman reduced to a piece of property. Nothing about Ms. Essaydi’s photographic copy changes this.

In the exhibition catalog, Nick Capasso, the show’s curator, argues that Ms. Essaydi presents us with images of women who are “empowered.” That’s the party line on these photographs. Sometimes I think it makes sense, as with “Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque,” but at other times it just doesn’t work. I don’t see how there can be anything empowering about images of women as sex slaves.

No doubt the use of text on the images is meant to give these women a voice, to show them as more than just passive bodies. But given that the text is mostly illegible, it becomes just another decorative element enhancing the aesthetic appeal of what are essentially clichéd images of the East seen through the lens of Western desire.

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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.

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