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.
Lalla Essaydi is amongst the ever-growing number of women artists from the Maghreb who have garnered international acclaim. The artist must also be placed, more widely, within a generation of minoritized artists who, often living and working in North America or Europe, explore issues relating to colonialism, gender and identity, particularly plural identity or what Homi Bhabha famously calls the “third space.”
From the Arabian Nights to the Arab Spring, Westerners see images of the Middle East in our own pop culture, news and art. But what does the region look like through the lens of local women? The exhibit She Who Tells a Story includes 85 images taken from the 1990s to today by a dozen female photographers from Iran and the Arab world. They aim to challenge Western conceptions and illuminate contemporary life and politics. Organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the exhibit opens at the Canadian War Museum Wednesday and runs until March 4.
Moroccan-born Lalla Essaydi, a former painter and alumna of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA), uses iconography from 19th century Orientalist paintings as inspiration to explore and question her own cultural identity. In the triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), the most expansive work in the exhibition at 5 1⁄2 x 12 1⁄2 feet, she uses calligraphy (a typically male art form) to suggest the complexity of gender roles within Islamic culture. In Bullets Revisited #3, silver and golden bullet casings evoke symbolic violence, referencing her fear about growing restrictions on women in a new, post-revolutionary era that followed demonstrations and protests in the Arab world that began in 2010.
A new exhibit at the Canadian War Museum is aiming to challenge Western perceptions of the Middle East. She Who Tells a Story is set to open Dec. 6 and features nearly 85 photographs taken by female photographers from the Arab world.
Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan photographer and artist whose work is displayed in the exhibit, spoke to CBC's All In a Day at its opening on Tuesday afternoon. Her piece, a triptych titled Bullets Revisited #3, features a reclining woman surrounded by bullet casings.
"This work is inspired by the Arab Spring," she said. "I wanted to represent these women who have been fighting among men for their own rights."
Converging Territories is a photo series conceptualized and executed by Moroccan-born photographer, Lalla Essaydi. The photographs feature Arab women as odalisques, and objects representative of the harem, as they confront the veil of a Western perspective of Orientalism. Borrowing the words of Whitman, the women in this series are large, they contain multitudes, and to wholly appreciate the granduer Essaydi encourages her viewers to dismiss stereotypes when engaging with her work.
Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s photographs set out to provoke viewers into new ways of seeing by mimicking and subverting Orientalist tropes. Beautiful but reductive, fetishistic and steeped in colonialism and imperialism, Orientalist paintings invented a Middle East that never existed for an audience that wished to see its desires and prejudices reinforced. Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi hijacks this imagery to create photographs that deliberately subvert Orientalist views.
I find this image transfixing. Having long admired 19th- and early-20th-century Orientalist art, I enjoy Lalla Essaydi’s fresh approach to it. Here, the artist re-creates a French School harem pose, herself applying the hennaed Islamic calligraphy covering the woman’s body. Antique textiles are central to my projects and those used in this composition are sensational. Her bed, wrapped in a strong indigo-blue carpet, contrasts with the sweeter surrounding colours and brings the subject forward in the composition. Her layers of clothing appear to extend out into the profusion of silks around her, adding to her allure. This highly decorative, impactful piece provides a window into a secretive world, a place the artist describes as a “dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide”.
Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi's "Bullets Revisited #3" is one of several works featured in the Akron Art Museum's upcoming exhibition, "Alchemy: Transformations in Gold." The exhibition travels from the Des Moines Art Center, where it was open from 11 February — 5 May 2017.
"I Am," a traveling exhibition that has already stopped in Amman, Jordan and London, UK, aims to challenge such stereotypes and shatter misconceptions of Middle Eastern women through photographs, paintings, and mixed-media works that reflect their varied life experiences.
Lalla Essaydi's "Bullets Revisited #15" is included in the exhibition.
Looking for enlightenment?
It can be found, then lost, and found again in an untitled 2009 artwork by Kevin Veronneau. A long strip of wood and masonite renders the revelatory noun in the reflective paint used for crosswalks. View the signage from one angle and aha! Total understanding. From another vantage point, however, the text disappears, and the viewer is greeted by a void.
Lalla Essaydi’s photograph “Converging Territories #29” pursues a similar idea, to earthier results. A cloaked woman’s back is turned from the camera, her shape and even surroundings swaddled in sumptuous, swirling eddies of Arabic calligraphy.
The National Museum of Women in the Arts (NMWA) announces recent major collection acquisitions in celebration of the beginning of the museum’s 30th-anniversary year. Newly acquired works include Lalla Essaydi's Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), on view in "REVIVAL" from June 23 to September 10, 2017. The show also includes Essaydi's Bullets Revisited #20 (2014) (pictured here).
“We are delighted to have strong support from generous donors and members who made these acquisitions possible. Their contributions have enabled us to add new, diverse and increasingly global artworks to the collection—from late 19th century painting to contemporary times,” said NMWA Director Susan Fisher Sterling. “These important acquisitions greatly enrich the thematic reinstallation of our collection galleries for the museum’s 30th anniversary.”
The title of a new exhibition at the National Museum of Women in the Arts , “She Who Tells a Story,” undersells the high quality of the work therein. The name is borrowed from an Arabic word, rawiya, which also refers to a group of female photographers working as a collective in the Middle East. But the title makes it sound as if this provocative show — devoted to photography by women from Iran and the Arab world — is just another exercise in narrative, just more storytelling, a needless addition to the overflowing swamp of narrative that drowns out critical thinking.
The depiction of Arab women in art is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries, it was unconditionally banned; the only existing representations were 19th-century European fantasies of women lazing in harems.
Now, women from the Muslim world appear frequently in painting, sculpture and photography, yet the issue remains fraught.
A panel discussion at The New York Times Art for Tomorrow conference in Doha explored the subject of how Arab women are portrayed in art, with Lalla Essaydi, an artist who lives and works in New York and Marrakesh, and Touria El Glaoui, the founder of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and the daughter of the renowned Moroccan painter Hassan El Glaoui.
Alchemy brings together a group of international artists whose work incorporates gold (or another metal disguised as gold). In each case, this precious material not only brings a sense of luxury to the work, but also ushers in connotations of the historic and cultural value various societies have placed on this rare element. As glamorous and sought after as gold may be, it’s capable of suggesting complicated politics and potent symbolism. The works in Alchemy embrace both dark and light readings of this glittering metal.
Lalla Essaydi's Bullets Revisited #3 and Bullets Revisited #22, pictured here, are included in the exhibition.
Of all the assumptions about the Arab world, “maybe the most insulting is the idea that women from our region are oppressed, and therefore weak, backwards and cannot think for themselves,” Yemeni photographer Boushra Almutawakel says. “Yes, there are cases of oppression for sure, yet in spite of it all I feel women from our part of the world are strong and resilient, and we are intelligent, and can speak for ourselves.” Ten of Almutawakel’s works — among them a series of portraits of a mother, her young daughter and her daughter’s doll increasingly veiled until they fade into the black background — appear as part of the National Museum of Women in the Arts’ newest exhibition, “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World.” Running through the end of July, the show features 83 photographs and one video installation by a dozen contemporary female artists, each exploring stereotypes in her own way.
This May, Lalla Essaydi's alma mater the School of the Museum of Fine Arts will honor Lalla with the SMFA Medal Award.
An interview with Lalla Essaydi about her work and its relation to the current situation in the Middle East.
Goings On About Town: Art
In “Harem,” this Moroccan-born, New York-based photographer’s most beautiful gallery exhibition to date, Essaydi continues to fearlessly take on Orientalist clichés.
Opening reception for the artist:
4 November, 6-8 pm