Click to enlarge. “Harem #2” by Lalla Essaydi
Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi always knew she was going to be an artist. Her father was a painter, and some of her fondest childhood memories include drawing with colors and pencils in his studio in Marrakesh. It wasn’t until a journalist spotted her photographs decades later while she was a graduate student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that she began to gain international attention.
Essaydi, who also lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and now lives in New York City, has had her work exhibited across the United States, Europe and the Middle East. Known for her large format photographs, her work combines Islamic calligraphy and representations of the female body, focusing on the interconnection of faith, culture and gender, and challenging notions within all three.
Her photographs feature women dressed in fabric inscribed with henna calligraphy posing in front of abstract backgrounds that utilize the same cloth and script. She sees her work as “intersecting with the presence and absence of boundaries; of history, gender, architecture, and culture; that mark spaces of possibility and limitation. That is my story as well.”
“Revisions,” which opens Wednesday at the National Museum of African Art and runs through Feb. 24, 2013, features 30 multimedia pieces selected from Essaydi’s photographic series. Selections from other rarely showcased paintings and installations are also featured.
“Lalla Essaydi has used multiple artistic media to take on a central challenge: confronting deeply entrenched historical notions about femininity and womanhood through the images of the Muslim world,” Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, told the Smithsonian’s press office. “Her work is vital and offers a fresh new voice and needed insight as it challenges the stereotype and perception of Arab, African and female identity.”
Art Beat talked with Essaydi on the eve of her exhibition about her creative influences, the themes in her work and her work using multimedia:
How did your Moroccan and Saudi Arabian upbringing influence your creative work?
Lalla Essaydi: My work is really autobiographical, it’s about my own experiences growing up in Morocco and living as an adult in Saudi Arabia for many years. It’s obviously infused in my work, but my work really goes beyond the Arab world or Arab culture. It really engages Western art and the role in which Arab women are used that I find problematic.
The Orientalist painters of the 19th century had some sexual fantasies that they wanted to realize and they couldn’t realize it in their own world. They chose the Arab world, in North Africa mostly, to convey that world, but it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, it was not only done then but it’s still invasive now. I use the female form to respond and deconstruct that idea about the Arab women within Western art.
Describe your focus in working in multimedia.
Lalla Essaydi: First, I think of myself as a painter, because growing up my father was a painter. Growing up, I always remembered the quality time I had with my father in his studio, where he would give me colors, pencils and I started drawing. Already at that young age, I knew I wanted to be an artist. I’ve always been fascinated with colors to the point that I see names and cities in color. I thought that was the norm for everyone until I went to class and shocked everybody by saying that.
Art for me is not something that I came into but it’s something I am. I’ve always wanted to become an artist, but I never thought I’d go to the professional level. I acquired skills so I could express myself, but I never thought I’d have an audience or show my work to the public. It all happened in graduate school, and I was showing my work in exhibitions and a journalist saw my work and started talking about it. Then galleries wanted my work and it just happened like that. As long as I’m painting or doing something creative, it doesn’t make a difference for me at all.
I started by being a painter and when I went to study for my Master’s degree, at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/TUFTS University, all classes were electives, so I started learning photography as a tool to document my paintings. It became a medium I fell in love with. So painting, photography, installation or film, for me it’s just a means to achieve something to create.
Who are some of your creative influences?
Lalla Essaydi: I’m influenced by Western Oriental paintings, but there are many other artists that I appreciate very much and I sometimes quote in my work. I’m mostly influenced by writers. Maybe because of my continuous research into feminist art and writing, but it’s mostly writers. For example, Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, Noelle Sayadaw, an Egyptian sociologist, the work of Linda Nochlin, an feminist art historian and Edward Said. Those are the major influences in my work.
What are some of the central themes in your work?
Lalla Essaydi: Gender issues within Islamic cultures, the Western voyeuristic tradition of Orientalist paintings, as well as what is the relationship between East and West? I am very much interested in a way of becoming a bridge, because I want to make it known that Orientalist paintings are just Western male fascination and a fantasy. I want people to understand that. I’m not laying blame on anyone, but I want people to acquire a different kind of seeing. I want them to synthesize themselves with these situations where women are portrayed so they would start seeing other things than sexual exploitation.
How critical is your faith and gender to your work?
Lalla Essaydi: I am a Muslim and a woman and if I’m trying to make clear the role of the Moroccan and Muslim woman, that we are not just confined and sitting in one corner, that has nothing to do with your faith and religion. It is almost fate for me. It’s my duty and my passion to show another facet of Arab women, the real Arab women to the Western world and the world in general. We are very strong, we’re human beings and we have our own personality on our own. We want to be seen like that. We don’t want this projection of the Western world or Islamic culture on us from both sides. We just want to be seen as human beings.
Edward Saïd’s seminal work, Orientalism, originally published in 1978, established the idea that the Orient was a construct fabricated and disseminated by the West via representations of the Other as a means of asserting power over the Middle East. The concept of the Other has undergone radical shifts as globalization, migration, and displacement have replaced traditional, finite boundaries with seemingly borderless global spaces.
Moroccan-born New York-based artist, Lalla Essaydi, whose works are currently on display at Jackson Fine Art through January 21, addresses contemporary issues of cultural identity and representation by employing the tropes of Orientalist painting in conjunction with issues surrounding her own hybrid, multicultural background. Essaydi references Western representations of the Middle-Eastern female as a way to subvert traditional conceptions of Islamic women and assert an alternative form of agency through the reconstruction of female identities she represents.
Traditional Orientalist imagery of the harem, created by white, European males of the late nineteenth-century, describes a voyeuristic experience of erotic pleasures based on stories from the mystical harems of the Arabian Nights tales. Essaydi’s series, Harem (2009) and Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-6), use compositions that reference the objectified depictions of women in this enigmatic setting. Harem boasts the bright colors of Moroccan architecture and takes on a glossy, decorative appearance not unlike that of a fashion-magazine spread. Her earlier series, Les Femmes du Maroc uses similar figure groupings and poses found in Harem, but employs a more restrained palette, rather than focusing on the detail of the written text. Although the text she uses is layered to the point of being illegible for any audience, the unfamiliarity with the text by Western viewers distances their connection to the imagery. By using tile patterns instead of text in Harem, Essaydi creates more universally legible imagery.
Essaydi puts careful detail into every element of the construction of her images, so that the production of the imagery becomes as important as the final photographic print. This process of assembling her images reflects the multivalent, complexly layered histories and identities associated with the Orientalist depictions of these women. Essaydi leaves traces of her facture within the various layers of creation, calling attention to the fabricated nature of the identities presented within: each photographic print includes the film’s uncropped border; the Fuji brand is apparent in the margins; and the crop marks, normally edited out of the final photograph, are included as part of the image.
Essaydi views her photographs as performance-based media: the process of painting on the fabrics and the bodies of her models is as much an act of expression as the final image. The act of producing the calligraphy, which appears on the textiled backgrounds and on the hennaed features of the women, takes months to prepare. The process becomes ritualistic with its long, meditative hours spent creating each these bodies of text. In Harem, Essaydi produces fabrics that reflect the architectural tile work within the spaces that the women inhabit. These fabricated elements permeate the women’s clothing and shoes, as well as the chairs and pillows on which they lounge.
The models are placed directly in front of the original source material of the patterns to call attention to the origin of Essaydi’s constructed fabrics. The re-contextualization of these patterns into clothing and furniture, as opposed to architecture, is not an immediately evident shift. Essaydi places these elements into the makeup of her photographs to appear authentic, not unlike the misplacement of artifacts within nineteenth-century Orientalist works. The artificiality of the newly contextualized patterns in these photographs disrupts the assumed authenticity of Essaydi’s depiction of harems, so that by making her hand evident, she illustrates the fabricated nature of the Orientalized identity.
Essaydi also takes a more literal approach in her nods to Orientalist paintings through the poses of her models. In both Harem and Les Femmes du Maroc, Essaydi’s compositions directly reference paintings from the Orientalist canon. Essaydi uses odalisque figures throughout both series, directly mimicking Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’s iconic image, La Grande Odalisque. Unlike Ingres, however, Essaydi clothes her figures in a way that hides most of their bodies. The portions of uncovered skin are still decorated in calligraphic, hennaed script, providing a subtle veil to shield her figures from the audience’s gaze. There is also the gaze implied by Essaydi’s medium of photography: the photographic lens suggests the manipulation and construction of an image as separate from reality. Thus, the image taken exists as a projection of reality seen through the mediation of the artist, as opposed to a completely untouched account of what is being shown.
A recurring theme in Essaydi’s work, which directly impacts her relationship to Orientalist themes, is the exploration of her own multiculturalism and hybridity. One of the preeminent scholars on the concept of hybridity, Homi K. Bhabha, wrote in his seminal work on the subject, The Location of Culture, that contemporary identity exists in a liminal space where “complex figures of difference and identity, past and present, inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion” exist as dynamic elements subject to continual renegotiation. Essaydi establishes reconciliations between disparate elements of her identity to create a newly revised and envisioned identity seated in both the East and the West. Essaydi is Moroccan by birth, but spent many years in Saudi Arabia. Later in life she studied art in both Europe and the United States. She currently divides her time between the United States and Morocco. Her life’s nomadic course has resulted in more of a global affiliation than affinity with any one nation or city as her home. This hybridity allows her to be both multicultural and an outsider to each of the nations with which she identifies.
A single image from Essaydi’s newest series Bullets on display in the exhibition also pays homage to artist Shirin Neshat through the inclusion of more direct allusions to violence, such as guns and bullets. Like her construction of space in previous works, here Essaydi uses bullet shells to create mesmerizing patterns in her background and text. And similar to the work of Neshat, she offers evidence of a violent political situation present outside the frame of the image.
The physical location of these photographs becomes an important component to Essaydi’s examination of Orientalism as well. In Arab culture, gender traditionally defines the function of architectural and social space: men occupy public space, and women the private, domestic sphere. Physical boundaries define cultural ones and dictate social roles within them. Essaydi wrote in her artist statement that the origins of Arabic women’s feelings of confinement within the private, domestic sphere of society is based in architectural space. Her use of text-covered canvases contributes to the idea of an overwhelmingly tight enclosure; there is no sense of escape from the space in these photographs as the background, appearing to be an unending wall of text, layers the entire composition. By means of these paneled walls, Essaydi establishes a new physical boundary, which transcends simple existence as text and acts as a composite of domestic architectural components.
The veil in these works also becomes central to the discussion of revising the depictions of Arabic females. Neshat works with themes similar to Essaydi’s, albeit in a much more politicized way. Neshat describes the history of the “Western obsession” with the veiled Muslim woman as intrinsically linked to the passive eroticism implied in Orientalist painting. Both Neshat and Essaydi use henna and calligraphic text to cover the bodies of the women in their photographs. When painted on the face, this text takes on the role of a symbolic veil by creating a layer between the audience and the photographed figure. In the work of both Essaydi and Neshat, the text of the veil becomes both silencing and liberating, imprisoning and empowering. The Western viewer becomes the outsider from these photographs without the ability to dissect the language within them, placing the knowledgeable Middle-Eastern audience who can read it in a position of power.
This illiteracy becomes another symbolic veil that exists between Western audiences and Arabic artists. Essaydi says that this textual veil serves as a form of empowerment for the women of her photographs. She says that her textual veil exists to conceal, protect, and decorate, but also to subvert the silence imposed on these women by both Eastern and Western male figures. The texts within Essaydi’s photographs are taken from her private journals, however, begging the question that the voice she gives to the models does not necessarily empower the women, but simply substitutes Essaydi’s voice for those of previous European males. A section of the calligraphic text in Essaydi’s compositions states, “The more my knowledge increases, the more I become convinced submissiveness is impossible.” Essaydi directly correlates literacy with the power structure imposed upon women, explaining why she takes pains to articulate and give voice to the models in her photographs.
The medium of calligraphy is traditionally inaccessible to women and is reserved for holy texts. As a female producing the texts and placing them on a female figure, Essaydi reassigns new values to writing and how it is to be viewed and utilized. The document becomes transcultural by serving as a traditional veil, yet also as a non-traditional vehicle rooted in American feminist artwork. Essaydi describes that henna is used to mark the major milestones in the life of a Moroccan woman; by combining the traditional calligraphic texts of the Islamic, male-dominated world with the women’s art of henna, Essaydi marks the milestone of this new agency for the women who are now taking an active role in establishing their own place in history.
Judith Butler described the act of claiming the body as a historical idea as a means to mediate and concretize its expression in the world. The body is capable of bearing meaning that is “fundamentally dramatic,” and can exist as a dynamic embodiment of identity through the reenactment of an historical situation present within that body. The figures in Essaydi’s harems are indeed pregnant with the historical rhetoric surrounding previous European depictions. By reenacting these histories, however, new meaning is inscribed by the mere fact of their existence in a new contemporary context. Each of the spaces that Essaydi has created in her works serves to create new questions about spaces of memory as they are revised in a liminal “home of the present.” Through her visual representations of hybridity, Essaydi empowers her subjects, her experience, and her history by reconfiguring her personal and national histories in the converging territories of the present.
Lalla Essaydi’sRecent Works will remain up at Jackson Fine Art through Saturday, January 21. The gallery is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10AM to 5PM.