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Lalla Essaydi, Harem Revisited #32, (2012). Courtesy Sundaram Tagore Gallery.
SINGAPORE - Morocco-born artist Lalla Essaydi subverts the Western male gaze in her striking photographs of contemporary Arab women, who are swathed in lush fabric and often covered with text in henna. Her photos, some of which are on display at Sundaram Tagore Gallery at Gillman Barracks until Dec 15, can take up to a year or more to stage.
Lalla Essaydi's large-scale photographs revolve around the harem, the odalisque and the veil—recurring themes that have dominated the European imagination of the Arab world. Combining calligraphy, henna and 19th-century Orientalist painting traditions along with her personal experiences, Essaydi seeks to capture the complex and multi-faceted experiences of Arab women.
Essaydi became interested in the theme of the harem while studying at Paris' Ecole des Beaux-Arts in the early 1990s, where she encountered the Western fantasies that differed drastically from her own experiences of the domestic spaces traditionally reserved for the women of Muslim households. The harems in 19th-century Orientalist paintings by artists such as Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Eugène Delacroix and Jean-Léon Gérôme were highly exoticised and sexualised spaces, whereas the place in which she grew up in Marrakech, Morocco, had been domestic and family-oriented. For Essaydi, it was also associated with memories of punishment and restriction, where women and children were subjected to solitary confinement for rebelling against the rules of Islam.
Unlike the nude odalisques in Orientalist paintings, the women in Essaydi's photographs are often clad in flowing and formless garments with any exposed skin covered in handwritten Arabic verses. Converging Territories #30 (2004), for example, taken in a harem not unlike the one of her childhood, depicts a row of four women and children in varying degrees of dress; the tallest figure is covered from head to toe—her face included—while the children's faces, hands and feet are unclothed. Calligraphy—traditionally reserved for men in Islamic culture—is here inscribed in henna—a domestic art form practiced by women—to decorate figures' cream-coloured garments and skin along with the backdrop. In addition to portraying the residents of the harem as non-objectified, ordinary human beings, Essaydi subverts conventional gender roles through her use of text.
Essaydi similarly appropriates Orientalist painting traditions to expose the historical fetishisation of Arab women in Western art. Her Grand Odalisque from the series 'Les Femmes du Maroc' (2008), for example, mirrors the reclining nude in Ingres' 1814 La Grande Odalisque, although her subject is dressed. In 2012, she even used caftans and fabrics that were from the same period as the European Orientalist painters to which she refers as props for the photographs that comprise the 'Harem' (2009) and 'Harem Revisited' (2012–13) series.
At the same time, Essaydi has expressed on her website that her work does not attempt to merely critique Arab or Western culture, but to reflect on the artist's personal experiences and the experiences of Arab women more generally. On one hand, her use of calligraphy conveys the women in her photographs as individuals with their own voices. Engulfing them, however, the text simultaneously functions as a figurative veil, ensnaring the women in a type of confinement. Sometimes, Essaydi even makes her subjects indistinguishable from their surroundings in works such as Harem #2 (2011), in which the reclining model's garment is of the same colour and pattern as the furniture on which she rests.
Essaydi completed her studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University, Boston, in 2003, and now lives and works in New York. Selected solo exhibitions include Truth and Beauty, Sundaram Tagore Gallery, Singapore (2018); Photographs, The Trout Gallery, Pennsylvania (2018); Lalla Essaydi: Still in Progress, Leila Heller Gallery, Dubai (2017); Lalla Essaydi: Photographs 2005–13, The San Diego Museum of Art (2015); Lalla Essaydi: Writing the Self, Writing Others, Bahrain National Museum (2014); and Les Femmes du Magreb, Orientalist Museum, Doha (2013). In 2012, a retrospective of her work titled Lalla Essaydi: Revisions was organised by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC.
For the first time at Sundaram Tagore Gallery, a specially curated selection of images by internationally acclaimed Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi will be on view. This exhibition brings together three of Essaydi's most powerful photographic series: Les Femmes du Maroc, Harem and Harem Revisited.
Lalla Essaydi was born and raised in Morocco and educated in the West before moving to Saudi Arabia for several years. The United States-based artist explores issues of gender, cross-cultural identity and the prevalent myths of Orientalism. Working across multiple disciplines—including painting, video, installation and photography—Essaydi challenges the social norms and hierarchies that shaped her life as a young girl in Morocco.
This exhibition comprises more than 20 large-scale colour photographs, including several of Essaydi's iconic multi-panel works. The images present Moroccan women in a range of staged narratives that explore contemporary power structures, while also confronting conventional representations of Arab women, formed in part by Western perceptions of Islamic culture.
In her photographs, Essaydi explores spaces both real and symbolic. Raised in a traditional Muslim household, which included designated areas just for women, Essaydi is intimately familiar with how Arab women's personal histories are interlinked with segregated spaces. Traditionally in Islamic culture, men move about freely in public spaces, while women are often confined to private realms, away from public view. Over time, physical borders come to define social hierarchies and for women, stepping outside these boundaries, literal or otherwise, can lead to confinement in an actual space. Through her creative practices, Essaydi has come to understand how these longstanding cultural mores have informed her views as an artist and as a woman living between two worlds.
In her Les Femmes du Maroc series, Essaydi appropriates Orientalist imagery from historical Western paintings, placing models in classical odalisque positions, similar to Ingres' Grande Odalisque, which depicts a reclining nude harem slave in an imagined Orient. Essaydi reinterprets such classical artworks by compositionally distilling the concept. She eliminates the lavish colour and opulent architectural surroundings and instead covers the models from head to toe with Arabic calligraphy—another recurring theme in her work. By focusing exclusively on women, who are arranged in ubiquitously fetishistic positions, Essaydi skillfully critiques established views of Arab women in Western art, and by extension, in contemporary culture.
Essaydi's images also consider the importance of art and architecture in Islamic culture. In her Harem and Harem Revisited series, the decorative treatment of the models and their surroundings reflects a long tradition in Islamic art in which entire surfaces are covered with dazzling calligraphic, geometric or botanical patterns. In Harem #7, for example, the model, wearing garments adorned with the same elaborate pattern as the surrounding tiles and carved woodwork, could easily recede into the scenery, viewed as another decorative object. Essaydi redirects this assumption by inscribing the models' faces, hands and feet with Arabic calligraphy, the practice of which is traditionally dominated by men. However her text is rendered in henna—an art form practiced only by women. The text, which is not legible, suggests a personal narrative, one in which Essaydi's voice breaks the silence of confinement and dismantles the notion of women as passive objects of fantasy.
'By reclaiming the rich tradition of calligraphy and interweaving it with the traditionally female art of henna,' she says, 'I have been able to express, and yet, in another sense, dissolve the contradictions I have encountered in my culture: between hierarchy and fluidity, between public and private space, between the richness and the confining aspects of Islamic traditions.'
Lalla Essaydi will talk about her work on Saturday, October 27, from 3 to 5 PM, at Sundaram Tagore Singapore at Gillman Barracks. This talk is free and open to the public. RSVP to firstname.lastname@example.org by October 20 to hold a spot; seating is limited.
About the Artist
Lalla Essaydi was born in Morocco in 1956 and received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in Massachusetts. She has exhibited her work across the globe, including at the Asian Civilisations Museum and the National Museum of Singapore; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and The San Diego Museum of Art, California; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the Smithsonian Institution's Museum of African Art and the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C. Her work is in numerous permanent collections, including the Asian Civilisations Museum, Singapore; Musée du Louvre, Paris; the British Museum, London; the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Brooklyn Museum of Art; the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art, Doha. She divides her time between New York, Boston and Marrakesh.
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