#19: Lalla Essaydi Speaking Through the Exotic

“In my art, 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 (source)

Lalla Essaydi is not a steampunk, but her latest photography series is, in essence, what multicultural steampunk can be: a framework in which representations of the past can be questioned by the present.

Essaydi was born in Morocco to a traditional conservative Muslim family, but was educated in Europe and the United States. Her experiences in both the West and non-Western worlds is reflected in her art. Her latest exhibition Les Femmes du Maroc is a mediation of Muslim female identity in two ways: how it was viewed by the West in the past and how it is presented today. Essaydi’s series title is a play off the famous Orientalist painting by Eugene Delacriox Les Femmes d’Algiers, and, by establishing the premise as a riff off famous European nineteenth century portrayals of Muslim women, Essaydi poses this question: how much has that perception changed and how much of it has stayed the same?

Les Femmes d’Algiers by Eugene Delacroix

Image courtesy of the Brooklyn Rail

La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres

Essaydi’s women live in a complicated world, one where they establish themselves as independent of the Western male gaze, but still entrapped within the Muslim patriarchy. The women are not exposed as Orientalist nudes, but covered modestly. The series takes place in a stark white home, the same home reminiscent of Essaydi’s childhood home where she was sent as punishment. All of the pictures take place in this modern take on the harem world, but even with such limited agency, Essaydi establishes a sense of self-expression and freedom for her women. Covered over the subjects is Essaydi’s fine calligraphy in henna. Arabic calligraphy—the script of the Q’uran and traditionally exclusive to men—has become subverted by being written in henna, which is Muslim women’s traditional art medium used for weddings and celebrations.

Essaydi says about this script in the exhibition description at the Edwynn Houk Gallery: “I am writing.  I am writing on me, I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began.”

In this manner, Essaydi gives these women a voice through their silent images.

“Bullets #3”

“After the Bath”

“Harem #10”

Her series is current on exhibition at the Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers now through June 6th. Here is the NY Times review of her work: Reviving the Exotic to Critique Exoticism

Current Exhibition at Rutgers

Brooklyn Museum Exhibition Essay

Edwynn Houk Gallery Brooklyn – Lalla Essaydi’s Host Gallery in Brooklyn. A display of the entire series can be seen here.



Filed under Essays

3 responses to “#19: Lalla Essaydi Speaking Through the Exotic

  1. Connie

    Oh I love this!

  2. Esther

    This is lovely and very interesting. The sheer amount of detail with the henna is extraordinary.

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