Lalla Essaydi’s exhibition at the Baku Museum of Art, Azerbaijan, interweaves African and Middle Eastern cultures.
The Baku Museum of Art in Azerbaijan is holding New York-based Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s solo exhibition (from 14 November 2013 to 14 January 2014). The artist personifies the strengthening links between the Middle Eastern and African art scenes, amidst growing cultural exchange between regions.
On 14 November 2013, Azerbaijan’s Baku Museum of Modern Art launched “Lalla Essaydi: Beyond Time and Beauty”. Curated by Dina Nasser-Khadivi, the show follows the artist’s recent retrospective at the Smithsonian Museum of African Art (2012-13) in Washington D.C. The Baku exhibition is part of a programme of international art exhibitions facilitated by Azeri non-profit art organisation YARAT. The show features works from the artist’s various series, including Converging Territories (2002-2004), Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-2008), Harem (2009) and Bullets (2009).
Curator Dina Nasser-Khadivi, in the press release, describes the artist as bridging various perceived binaries:
Essaydi is a remarkable international artist; she navigates pervasive cultural and aesthetic dichotomies to make something wholly original – East and West, Tradition and Modernity and the changing perceptions of women.
Weaving multiple cultural references
New York-based Lalla Essaydi is the personification of a multicultural identity: she was raised in Morocco, spent many years in Saudi Arabia and was educated in Europe and the United States. The artist creates photographic, mixed media and installation works that re-examine Orientalist cultural and gender stereotypes, Islamic iconography and the perception of Middle Eastern women. Essaydi talks in her website statement about how she felt the need to document actual spaces from her childhood: “my work is haunted by space, actual and metaphorical, remembered and constructed.”
In her own words, Essaydi explains her art in two sentences:
In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses – as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.
Harems, calligraphy and Orientalism
“The Converging Territories” series of photographs depicts Islamic women and children in an unoccupied house where Essaydi was once confined when she was disobedient as a child. Veiled and blending with their environment, the women give a sense of stifled silence, invisibility and entrapment.
In Les Femmes du Maroc, the artist explores the function of the veil in Islam. The women in this series are covered head to toe in Islamic calligraphy, as are their robes and the surrounding interiors. The henna decoration has an extremely feminine connotation and marks the most significant and (sometimes) happiest moments in an Islamic woman’s life, such as weddings. The Islamic art of calligraphy, on the other hand, is male-dominated. In the photographs, the dense black writing that pervades the whole scene seems to entrap the women, like the controlling pressure exerted by men in Arab culture.
In Harem (2009), the women in her photos are portrayed in a former harem in Morocco. Her subjects, clad in flowing kaftans decorated with patterns echoing those of the harem’s tiles, blend with the architecture like decorative motifs. The harem is a private portion of the house, meant to accommodate the everyday life of the family’s female members and prevent encounters with male strangers. These odalisques, which Orientalism stereotypes as romantic and exotic, here literally become what the word in fact means: in Turkish, odalisque means “to belong to a place.” The women appear as collectible items in a male’s cabinet of curiosities.
All of Essaydi’s subjects are adorned with henna calligraphy. The Smithsonian’s website for her 2013 retrospective identifies her henna writing as “a delicate act of defiance. It provides a voice, upsetting the silence of confinement and the limitations women face.”
In the press release for her exhibition in London at Kashya Hildebrand Gallery (24 October – 8 December 2013), the artist says about her use of henna calligraphy:
By reclaiming the rich tradition of calligraphy and interweaving it with the traditionally female art of henna, I have been able to express, and yet, in another sense, dissolve the contradictions I have encountered in my culture: between hierarchy and fluidity, between public and private space, between the richness and the confining aspects of Islamic traditions.
Shimmering gold, bullets and concealed violence
In her series of photographs titled Bullets, the women are adorned in shimmering, golden fabrics and metallic materials, surrounded by equally dazzling mosaic backgrounds. The photos, lit by an aura of apparent luxury, wealth and elegance, hide a surprise. Every shimmering item is made of carefully cut and polished bullet casings. The artist juxtaposes deadly violent objects from contemporary society with dreamy classical scenes, commenting on the hidden violence inherent in women’s fate in Islamic culture.
Strengthening ties between Middle East, Africa and Asia
This year has seen a growing interest in strengthening cultural ties across regions, between Middle East, Africa and Asia. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art announced on 26 November 2013 that it received a donation of USD1.8 million from the Sultanate of Oman, the largest in the museum’s fifty years history. The donation promotes cultural collaboration between Oman and West African countries, facilitated by the Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center in Washington D.C.
The 2013 edition of Art Dubai fair saw “Marker”, an exhibition of curated booths, focusing on art from five West African countries that highlighted historical and cultural links between the countries and Dubai. Next year’s “Marker” will see a focus on Central Asian art, curated by Central Asian collective Slavs and Tatars. The ME.NA.SA.ART fair in Beirut, which focuses on Middle Eastern, African and South Asian art, announced this year that it will launch a new edition in Singapore in November 2014. A show of Arab art at the Singapore Art Museum in June-September 2013 marked the first time that Arab art has been the focus of a major exhibition in Southeast Asia.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
- Is African art London’s next big thing? Frieze London 2013 and 1:54 – fair round up – October 2013 – African contemporary art takes centre stage in two London art fairs
- Pakistan’s Naiza Khan wins 2013 Prince Claus Award – September 2013 – Naiza Khan receives award for being a role model for other women artists in a male-dominated context, among other merits
- Wangechi Mutu’s “surreal cosmos”: Kenyan contemporary art – picture feast – August 2013 – Kenya-born artist Wanghechi Mutu has her first retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia
- “She who tells a story”: Arab women artists in Boston – August 2013 – women photographers from Iran and the Arab World challenge stereotypes of how women are perceived and represented at MFA Boston’s exhibition
- Manila exhibition “You Have Every Right” examines gender roles in contemporary art – curator interview – April 2013 – the March/April 2013 exhibition “You Have Every Right” responds to Manila’s international ranking of eighth on the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Report
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