Reviving the Exotic to Critique Exoticism

Lalla Essaydi in the New York Times

“Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc,” an exhibition at the Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, draws attention to one of the most interesting if puzzling developments in contemporary art: a revival of exotic, often historical imagery of people from faraway places in the name of a critique of exoticism.


Ms. Essaydi is a Moroccan-born, New York-based photographer who has risen to prominence for her beautiful, striking imagery dealing with the role of women in Islamic societies. But much like Shirin Neshat, Shahzia Sikander and other successful expatriate female artists from Muslim nations, she trades in stereotypes, reflecting back at us our own misconceptions and prejudices.


The current exhibition of work by Ms. Essaydi, a touring show from the DeCordova Sculpture Park and Museum, in Lincoln, Mass., consists of 17 color photographs of Moroccan women dressed up and arranged into staged scenes appropriated from 19th-century European and American Orientalist paintings. Among her sources are paintings by well-known artists like Jean-Léon Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, John Singer Sargent and Frederic Leighton.


The artist has scrawled Arabic calligraphy on her photographs. It is written in henna, which is used by women in South Asia and in some Islamic countries to decorate the hands, feet and body for marriage and other ceremonies. The calligraphy, loosely applied, is largely obscured by its presentation; for the most part it is illegible, even to those who read Arabic.


Though this is not a big show, the visual elegance of the works is overwhelming. They are beautiful and alluring; my immediate reaction on walking into the show was “Wow.” The impact can be attributed partly to the fetishistic and sometimes openly sexual aspects of the Orientalist originals, and partly to the decorative use of the calligraphy, which adds a pleasing patina of age...

5 March 2010