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.Read More
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.
Sherry Paik | Ocula | 2018