Lalla Essaydi’s “A New Gaze,” on show at Edwynn Houk Gallery, also ambitions to break away from externally-imposed constraints. In her body of work, Essaydi (b.1956) seeks to subvert 19th-century Orientalist visual tropes in 14 chromogenic prints. The prints pay homage to portraiture, except for one still life, in soft, desaturated sepia hues, and more graphic composition playing on traditional Islamic tile patterns, such as in Harem #14B (2009), and colorful interiors, in Harem Revisited #59 (2013) and Harem Revisited #33 (2012). These tableaux place women at the center of our present gaze, overlaying the weight of an intrusive past. The women wear robes matching their surroundings—as if they are props or accessories to enhance a scene. In Les Femmes du Maroc: Fumée d’Ambre Gris (2008), the protagonist looks like a priestess or new Circe inspired by John William Waterhouse’s brush.
In her archetypical world of feminine drapes and veils and relying on the motif of the harem, Essaydi reinterprets rather than disrupts the Orientalist genre. Visually, the interrelated prints are stunning. The story they tell conveys the difficulty to transcend accepted gender roles and representation of domesticity.
— Farah Abdessamad