"My photographs are about the women subjects' participation in contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women, while at the same time conveying to an outside audience a very rich tradition of practice, relationships, and ideas that are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West." —Lalla Essaydi
Lalla Essaydi's photographs deal with a rebellion against the limited domain of the female within Islamic traditions. As noted in Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World (Aperture, 2005), according to Islamic tradition, the street is the domain of men, and women are condemned to live indoors. Behind closed doors, they are nothing more than decoration, suggests Essaydi, a situation she that she vividly represents in Converging Territories, which appeared in the spring 2005 issue of Aperture magazine alongside a text written by Isolde Brielmaier. Essaydi places Islamic women in isolated spaces and literally decorates them with texts written in henna. The texts—a reversal of the silence of their isolation—give the women a voice, with which they can speak to the space and to one another. The rebellious character of the photographs is magnified by the fact that within Islam calligraphy cannot be practiced by women.
Converging Territories #30 was photographed in the house where women and girls from the artist's family were locked up, sometimes for weeks, when they transgressed the rules of Islam. Essaydi herself was sent to this space as a youth; escorted by silent servants, she would be left alone for up to a month. As Isolde Brielmaier notes, "her intention and introspection are evident in her photographs: we see Essaydi turning 'space' into something more than just the delimited enclosures of that house of her childhood."
Lalla Essaydi’s (born Marrakech, Morocco, 1956) work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Columbus Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and many others.
Lalla Essaydi’s (b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco) art champions women. Central to the artist’s vision is a unique synthesis of personal and historical catalysts. As a Muslim woman who grew up in Morocco, raised her family in Saudi Arabia, and relocated to France and finally the United States, the artist has profound firsthand perspectives into cross-cultural identity politics. Essaydi also weaves together a rich roster of culturally embedded materials and practices—including the odalisque form, Arabic calligraphy, henna, textiles, and bullets—to illuminate the narratives that have been associated with Muslim women throughout time and across cultures. By placing Orientalist fantasies of Arab women and Western stereotypes in dialogue with lived realities, Essaydi presents identity as the culmination of these legacies, yet something that also expands beyond culture, iconography, and stereotypes.
The performative act of inscribing women’s bodies and spaces with calligraphy is a vital part of Essaydi’s approach, emphasizing the ongoing, active, and collaborative process of becoming and creating. Since her first major series Converging Territories (2002-4), Essaydi has used henna to envelope the women in her photographs in Arabic calligraphy, a skill she could not learn in school due to her gender. Henna is a form of decoration that marks some of the happiest and most significant moments of a Muslim woman’s life, and Essaydi elevates this tradition—conventionally regarded as a “woman’s craft”—into a radical act of visual and linguistic artistry. The stream-of-consciousness, poetic script includes biographical details relating to the artist’s and models’ experiences as women. Essaydi’s series Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-7) continued to engage with these approaches while expanding to also question the historical representation of Arab women in the Western art canon, referencing the Orientalist imagery of 19th century artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérôme. Her reinterpretation is a strong statement of the power of artistic representation to influence identity. In her Harem series (2009), set in a lavish yet isolating harem in Morocco, Essaydi addresses the complex social and physical confines of Muslim womanhood. Her most recent series Bullets (2009-14) introduces a new material for the artist—silver and gold bullet casings—which she has woven together to create glittering gowns of armor.
Essaydi’s work deliberately incorporates and invites perspectives from many angles. “In my art,” Essaydi explains, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”
Essaydi spent her most foundational years living in traditional Muslim society in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. She attended École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris before earning her BFA from Tufts University and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, both in Boston. Her work has been exhibited around the world, including at the San Diego Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Bahrain National Museum; and Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial, United Arab Emirates. Essaydi’s work is represented in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; and the Louvre Museum, Paris, amongst many others. The most recent text of her work, Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures, was published in 2015 by ACR Edition, in addition to a selection from her series Les Femmes du Maroc published by powerHouse Books in 2009. The artist currently lives in Boston and Marrakesh.
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