In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses —
as Artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi,
as Artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi,
as Traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim.
In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.
* * * * *
She lives and works in New York. She was born in 1956 in Morocco. She represents both East and West.
Her family is conservative and Muslim. Her education is European (Paris) and American (Boston).
She's a painter, a photographer, an installation artist. Her name is known throughout the art world, and she is represented in many public and private collections.
Her work crosses cultural boundaries, invokes art history, is at once personal and political, domestic and social. It reaches back to myths, unburdens stereotypes, upsets our thinking about gender, hierarchies and power, and traditions that limit as well as preserve. It's about the past —colonialism and independence — and also certainly about the present, about perspectives and attitudes — about women, by women, toward women, of women. And it's about confinement and freedom, constraint and control; about beauty and objectification; about the surface and what's lying below, the spaces within, between, and without. It's subversive and provocative; sensual and ritualistic; also exotic and mysterious. It's written all over. It's more than art: It's testimony, witness, documentation.
Meet Lalla Essaydi.
Pictured at left: Moorish Woman, 2008, Chromogenic print mounted to aluminum and protected with Mactac luster laminate. Collection Lalla Essaydi. Copyright © Lalla Essaydi. Edwyn Houk Gallery (New York) and Howard Yezerski Gallery (Boston).
Les Femmes du Maroc, an exhibition of 17 of Essaydi's photographs, opened January 30 at Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, State University of New Jersey, New Brunswick. Organized by DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, the show continues until June 6.
A color brochure about the exhibition, available on the DeCordova site, is here. (The show was at the DeCordova from September 26, 2009, to January 3, 2010.)
Like her contemporaries — Shirin Neshat (Iran), Shahzia Sikander (Pakistan), Ghada Amer (Egypt) — Essaydi is hailed a "feminist". Her extraordinary art, to my mind, defies so singular a label and connotation. It provokes too many thoughts, raises too many questions, contains too many contradictions, allows too many interpretations to be any one thing. As Essaydi herself says, "I invite viewers to resist stereotypes."
The photographs in the exhibition all show women, either a single woman or a group of women; all but a few are veiled, and their clothing is layered, encumbering, both hiding and revealing, and unmistakably if somewhat unsettlingly beautiful. They and their ground (floor, cushions or other furnishings, drapery, and backdrop) are all of a piece, covered entirely by calligraphy, an art form that in Islamic countries until recently has been the province of men who transcribe sacred literature. The inscription in Essaydi's photographs, as in the image above, is in henna. Henna has long been used to "decorate" women's bodies, though it has many other uses, including medicinal; traditionally, henna painting has been deemed a woman's art. Thus, to use henna in calligraphy is to defy status quo, to enter space "owned" by men, to upset the already imbalanced scale that puts men on one side, women on another. Also, the text in the photographs is not from the Qur'an; nor is it sacred to anyone but the writer. It's culled from the artist's own journals and, according to gallery notes, speaks about memory, communication, cultural identity, self-identity, and personal freedom. It's Essaydi's private narrative exposed.
Essaydi's work deliberately invokes, in title and use or staging of women, Eugene Delacroix's famous Les Femmes d'Algiers, painted in 1834 and now in the Musee du Louvre, and other Orientalist art of the 19th Century (for example, Ingres, Regnault, Sargeant) that, interestingly, is pursued avidly today by collectors in the Middle East. (See "Why Orientalist Art Is Hot", Forbes Magazine, April 13, 2009.)
This is art to linger over, talk about, argue over, be inspired by. It cannot leave you neutral.
In 2011, North Carolina Museum of Art plans a mid-career survey of Essaydi's work.
There are many informative articles on Essaydi and her fascinating work, including this one from 2007. This, from Tindouf Gallery Marrakech, shows additional images, including a photograph of Essaydi. Lisa Sette Gallery, in Scottsdale, Arizona, carries the artist's work, and offers an essay on the artist here. Essaydi's work also is featured in the Brooklyn Museum's Feminist Art Base.
This YouTube video offers a view of Essaydi photographs in Indelible, a show last year at the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, in Nashville, Tennessee.
An interesting art historian's perspective on Orientalism and the term "Islamic art" is here.