Lalla Essaydi was born in Marrakesh, Morocco in 1956 and grew up in Morocco. After marrying, she relocated to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Essaydi attended the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in the early 1990s before moving to Boston to earn her BFA from Tufts University and MFA in painting and photography from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Although Essaydi was educated in Europe and the United States, her experiences living in traditional Muslim societies were fundamental in shaping her identity.

For the past 20 years, since Essaydi’s first major photographic series Converging Territories (2002-4), her photographs have explored the limited domains of women in traditional Muslim societies. Essaydi uses henna to envelope the women in her photographs in Arabic calligraphy; the writing adorns their skin, their robes, and the interiors that surround them. Henna is a form of decoration that marks some of the happiest and most significant moments of a Muslim woman’s life, yet the omnipresent text in Essaydi’s photographs recalls women’s traditionally silenced roles. The stream-of-consciousness, poetic script relates to biographical details relating to the artist’s and models’ experiences as women. Essaydi’s series Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-7) continued to engage in this inquiry while expanding to also question the historical representation of Arab women in the Western art canon, referencing the Orientalist imagery of nineteenth century artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérôme.  In the Harem series (2009), Essaydi produced a series of pictures in a former harem in Morocco, often swathing her subjects in robes that closely echo the decorative tiles that wall the complex. In her most recent series, Bullets (2009-14), she weaves silver and gold bullet casings to create elaborate sets and clothing that encase her models. 

While Essaydi’s works hint at limitations that women, particularly Muslim women, have faced, they deliberately incorporate and invite perspectives from many angles. “In my art,” Essaydi explains, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses— as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”

Lalla Essaydi lives in Boston and New York. 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. Recent exhibitions of her work have been staged at the San Diego Museum of Art; the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C.; Bahrain National Museum; and Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial, United Arab Emirates. Her 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.