الفنون: Contemporary Arts of the Middle East & North Africa

an enthusiastic novice's thoughts

Lalla Essaydi: Orientalist Mythology’s Challenger

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It’s impossible to think about contemporary Moroccan art without hearing Lalla Essaydi‘s name. This month, Essaydi is featured in Madame à Marrakech magazine which, unfortunately for me, is all in French. The language barrier proves irrelevant, however, when you’re able to turn the page and be confronted with images like these:

Rich patterns, exotic women wearing layers beneath their poses and facial expressions, a million and one references to Orientalist paintings from the 1800s, provocative titles…Essaydi produces image after image of compelling stories that penetrate every kind of viewer in a different way. An interview with Essaydi published in September 2013 discusses how the artist finds this mass appeal to be problematic. Author Sarah El-Shaarawi explains:

Essaydi’s aesthetic is undeniably visually pleasing.  She explained that while her work is received very differently in the West and Arab World, the one aspect that is universally appreciated is the aesthetic. This she finds troubling. “I want people to look past that, because remember what we’re talking about, the beauty in those [Orientalist] paintings… Part of what makes those paintings so powerful is the beauty.” But she insists on staying true to her natural aesthetic. “You can’t run away from that,” she says, “It is you. At the same time beauty is what attracts you to the art in the first place… I want to have a dialogue. If I put it in their faces, they’re going to turn away… it’s very dangerous, I know that, and I hate it when people only like the work because it is decorative.”

Decorative? I can’t imagine anyone exiting an experience with one of Essaydi’s works on that simple of a level. Her use of layering is not only extensive, but it takes place both literally and figuratively: women, clothes, and backgrounds are coated in Arabic calligraphy; poses and gazes evoke well-known imagery pulled from Jean-Léon GérômeJean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and a smattering of other Orientalist painters; materials used to construct the scenes are both traditional (interiors of Moroccan homes) and innovative (bullet casings).

Essaydi prides herself on creating such complex images due to her own experience of reading things too simply:

The story behind her introduction to Orientalist art and the journey that led to her present work is an interesting one that begins, perhaps surprisingly, with an appreciation of the genre. “I fell in love with the aesthetic beauty of Orientalist paintings while in Paris many years ago,” Essaydi explained, “Then I started reading about Orientalism. I love the way [the pieces] are painted, they are exquisite, but then I started seeing how they portray the culture.” At this time in her life, she felt these paintings were simply a portrayal of fantasy, as she, a part of one of the cultures being portrayed, knew the images were not representative. “It was the portrayal of a fantasy, and I thought everybody knew that.”

It was an interaction that took place while working toward her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that helped bring to light the fallacy of this belief, and set the trajectory of her career. She had created large pieces playing off the work of renowned 19th century French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, well known for his Orientalist depictions. A curator approached her, curious about the work.

“She wanted to know why I had incorporated Gérôme, why I was making it so huge, presenting it in this way, and so on. I started talking to her about it, telling her that [Gérôme’s portrayal] was a fantasy, and explaining that I was trying to show that by putting the image in a different setting, [I was hoping] to make people realize that if you remove the characteristics of these paintings that make them so beautiful – that [it is the] beauty that allows you to actually look at these women being sold in the streets, accept that, and still look at it as a very beautiful thing.”

Quick review: Orientalism is “a rationalization for European colonialism based on a self-serving history in which ‘the West’ constructed ‘the East’ as extremely different and inferior, and therefore in need of Western intervention or ‘rescue'”, according to Edward Said, a prominent Orientalist scholar from Columbia University. In other words, it’s a way that we, the West, attempts to understand “the other”, which we already understand as different, exotic, and, above all, inferior. 19th century academic painters from Europe indulged in lavish portrayals of North Africans in their tiled bathhouses surrounded by their hookahs and their harems, assembling unfamiliar and exciting images of this new world that so many people never actually experienced. These assemblages are rife with preconceived notions (“marvels” of the East, the sensual woman, mystery, magic) and the perspective of the colonialist. Said discusses how these images fed off of each other and reinforced one another to the point where even academic writings of people with actual experience of the East repeated these one-dimensional ideas. Because of these stasis in depiction, the images reiterate that the East and its people never actually develop or change.

All of these heavy implications are appropriated within Essaydi’s work. She is able to manipulate the extravagance and beauty with an edge of mystery that defined Orientalist paintings and positions it so that the viewer finds themselves examining numerous themes. In a 2012 interview with Art Beat, Essaydi named “gender issues within Islamic cultures, the Western voyeuristic tradition of Orientalist paintings, as well as [the question of] what is the relationship between East and West” as the topics she currently investigates in her work. As a result, most of her artistic influences are, in fact, writers. She names “Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist, Noelle Sayadaw, an Egyptian sociologist, the work of Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian and Edward Said” among the most prominent of them.

Les Femmes du Moroc: Harem Beauty 1

Les Femmes du Moroc: Harem Beauty 1

Essaydi’s naming of Fatima Mernissi was particularly intriguing, but definitely not surprising, to me. Mernissi writes extensively about gender dynamics within the modern Arab world, critiquing the male-dominated society that puts women in hijab on the front lines of a religious identity. Essaydi unpacks this idea in the context of Muslim women in the Arab Spring. Her “Bullet” series, which actually incorporates empty bullet casings into the ornamentation of her depicted space, is, in the artist’s words, “openly confrontational.” In an interview earlier this month with Art Info, Essaydi identifies a “gender apartheid” that has developed within the Middle East.

This new series is much more openly confrontational since the visual vocabulary I chose alludes directly to violence and violence  projected on women. Women have been at the forefront of the  uprisings in the Arab world, and as soon as these new regimes took  hold, women were subordinated anew. This gender apartheid is not about piety, it is about dominating excluding and subordinating  women, It is about barring them from political activities, preventing  them from fully exercising the rights Islam grants them. The fear – my fear – is that this also could further marginalize women in their native countries as well as in the art world by defining them solely by their gender.

Bullet #1

Bullet #1

Bullet #3

Bullet #3

Even more interesting and revealing is Essaydi’s artist statement. Enumerating her inspirations, questions, and thought process, the artist leads us into a territory that reeks of a complexity only touched upon by her work. Women of the North Africa and Middle East have a strong advocate behind Essaydi’s lens.


In a sense, my work is haunted by space, actual and metaphorical, remembered and constructed. My photographs grew out of the need I felt to document actual spaces, especially the space of my childhood. At a certain point, I realized that in order to go forward as an artist, it was necessary to return physically to my childhood home in Morocco and to document this world which I had left in a physical sense, but of course, never fully in any deeper, more psychological sense. In order to understand the woman I had become, I needed to re-encounter the child I once was. I needed to return to the culture of my childhood if I wanted to understand my unfolding relation to the “converging territories” of my present life. This culture, and the space of my childhood within it, was defined for me by specific domestic spaces, ones that still exist, but are in the process of slowly deteriorating. So I embarked on a project to photograph these physical spaces before they were lost, and in doing so, to see the role they played in shaping the metaphorical space of my childhood.

It is obvious that while my photographs are expressions of my own personal history, they can also be taken as reflections on the life of Arab women in general. There are continuities, of course, within Arab culture, but I am uncomfortable thinking of myself as a representative of all Arab women.  Art can only come from the heart of an individual artist, and I am much too aware of the range of traditions and laws among the different Arab nations to presume to speak for everyone. My work documents my own experience growing up as an Arab woman within Islamic culture seen now from a very different perspective. It is the story of my quest to find my own voice, the unique voice of an artist, not an attempt to present myself as a victim, which would deprive me of the very complexity I wish to express.

These photographs have led me to a greater understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture. Traditionally, the presence of men has defined public spaces: the streets, the meeting places, the places of work.  Women, on the other hand, have been confined to private spaces, the architecture of the home. Physical thresholds define cultural ones, hidden hierarchies dictate patterns of habitation. Thus crossing a permissible, cultural threshold into prohibited “space” in the metaphorical sense, can result in literal confinement in an actual space. Many Arab women today may feel the space of confinement to be a more psychological one, but its origins are, I think, embedded in architecture itself. In my photographs, I am constraining the women within space and also confining them to their “proper” place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. The henna painted on their bodies corresponds to the elaborate pattern of the tiles. The women then, become literal odalisques (odalisque, from the Turkish, means to belong to a place).

But my work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke the Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem. Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists––in other words as a voyeuristic tradition.

It is not only the West that has been prevented from seeing Arab culture accurately. How people in the Arab world see themselves has also been affected by the distorted lens of Orientalism. There is some evidence that the Orientalist perspective has had an impact on the actual lives of Arab men and women, and especially that the rules for Arab women became much stricter as a result of Western influence. When the West portrays Eastern women as sexual victims and Eastern men as depraved, the effect is to emasculate Eastern men, and to challenge the traditional values of honor and family. So Arab men feel the need to be even more protective of Arab women, preventing them from being targets of fantasy by veiling them. The veil protects them from the gaze of Orientalism. While we’ll probably never know whether the return to the veil and the rules that accompany it is a response to Western influence or merely coincidental, it is hard to believe there is no relationship. In a sense what the West did was to erase the boundaries of public and private; in part the Arab world responded by re-instating those boundaries in a way that would be clear and visible. Within the veil, an Arab woman has a private space.

I want to stress that I do not intend my work simply as a critique of either culture, Arab or Western. I am going further than mere critique to a more active, even subversive, engagement with cultural patterns, in order to get beyond stereotypes and convey my own experience as an Arab woman. In employing calligraphic writing, I am practicing a sacred Islamic art that is usually inaccessible to women. To apply this writing in henna, an adornment worn and applied only by women, adds a further subversive twist. Thus the henna/calligraphy can be seen as both a veil and as an expressive statement.  Yet the two are not so much in opposition as interwoven. The “veil” of decoration and concealment has not been rejected but instead has been integrated with the expressive intention of calligraphy. Although it is calligraphy that is usually associated with “meaning” (as opposed to “mere” decoration), in the visual medium of my photographs, the “veil” of henna in fact enhances the expressivity of the images.

By the same token, the male art of calligraphy has been brought into a world of female experience from which it has traditionally been excluded. Also, by choosing to use a number of women, I subvert their imposed silence. These women “speak” through the language of femininity to each other and to the house of their confinement, just as my photographs have enabled me to speak. Through these images I am able to suggest the complexity of Arab female identity – as I have known it–and the tension between hierarchy and fluidity at the heart of Arab culture.

By reclaiming the rich tradition of calligraphy and interweaving it with the traditionally female art of henna, 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.

As an artist now living in the West, I have become aware of another space, besides the house of my girlhood, an interior space, one of “converging territories.” I will always carry that house within me, but my current life has added other dimensions. There is the very different space I inhabit in the West, a space of independence and mobility. It is from there that I can return to the landscape of my childhood in Morocco, and consider these spaces with detachment and new understanding. When I look at these spaces now, I see the two cultures that have shaped me and which are distorted when looked at through the “Orientalist” lens of the West. This new perspective has led me in my most recent photographs to situate my subjects in a non-specific space, one which no longer identifies itself as a particular house in Morocco, but rather the multivalent space of their/HER own imagination and making. In these images, the text is partly autobiographical. Here I speak of my thoughts and experiences directly, both as a woman caught somewhere between past and present, as well as between “East” and “West,” and also as an artist, exploring the language in which to “speak” from this uncertain space. But in the absence of any specificity of place, the text itself becomes the world of the subjects – their thoughts, speech, work, clothing, shelter, and nomadic home. This text is of course incomplete. It involves the viewer as well as the writer in a continual process of reading and revising, of losing and finding its multiple and discontinuous threads. Similarly, figures of the women in the photographs can only be gathered and informed by multiple visual readings. As you can see, the Orientalist tradition is more directly called forth, and played with, in my most recent photographs than in earlier ones. But again, this is only a matter of emphasis, yet another layer in the palimpsest of readings I hope to evoke in the viewer. Ultimately, I wish for my work to be as vividly present and yet as elusive as “woman” herself — not simply because she is veiled or turns away – but because she is still in progress.

Converging Territories #24

Converging Territories #24

Author: sarahquinn

Served as a Youth Development Peace Corps Volunteer in Tameslouht, Morocco from 2011 - 2014.

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