Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s monograph examines the emancipation of Arab women through a voyeuristic tradition. 

A new book featuring the photography of Lalla Essaydi takes an intimate look at the artist’s career and socio-political conditions and the “anthropological conditioning” that inspires her work.

Book cover for 'Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures.' Image courtesy ACR Edition and Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Book cover for ‘Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures.’ Image courtesy ACR Edition and Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures [ACR Edition, May 2015] covers the breadth of Lalla Essaydi’s lush work from 2003 to 2014. Managed by curator and consultant Dina Nasser-Khadivi and published by ACR Edition in conjunction with the Edwynn Houk Gallery, the project includes an introduction by the artist and essays by five distinguished curators, consultants, writers and scholars from the art world including Mitra Abbaspour, Maryam Ekhtiar, Stéphane Guégan, Kinsey Katchka and Nawal El Saadawi. Abundant plates from Essaydi’s series Converging Territories, Les Femmes du Maroc, Harem, Harem Revisited and Bullets, join a comprehensive listing of articles/publications and an exhibition history.

Lalla Essaydi. Photograph by Lajos Greenen.

Lalla Essaydi. Photograph by Lajos Greenen.

Born in Morocco, Lalla Essaydi is a visual artist who explores stereotypical themes of Islamic culture debated in Edward Said’s Orientalism and Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 19th century paintings. Laid bare are the private architectural spaces, the harems, the veiled faces. These are familiar, fantastical images, but with a contemporary twist where illegible calligraphy is superimposed in henna over the images. The artist notes in the book:

Henna is a crucial element in the life of a Moroccan woman, and is associated with the major celebrations in her life. It is first applied when a girl attains puberty to mark her passage into womanhood. When she is a bride it is thought to enhance her charms for her husband. Finally, it is used to celebrate fertility when she has her first child.  

Calligraphy, traditionally a male-dominated activity, combined with henna, allows the artist to “speak” through her images in a contemporary way. These portraits are pregnant with contradictions; hierarchy and fluidity, public and private space, the rich yet confining aspects of the Islamic tradition – paradoxes that remain to this day.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Converging Territories #24’, 2004. Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Converging Territories #24’, 2004. Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

In the opening essay, Stéphane Guégan, art critic, curator and historian at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, speaks of Essaydi’s entry into intimate, sensual scenes as a silent observer, allowing us an elusive and fleeting look into a very private space:

In “revisiting” her imaginary harem, Lalla Essaydi reminds us that the places of all our fantasies only have a subjective existence. Where is the harm? The photographer, we believe, is only dashing the clichés from an outdated schema, that wants sensuality and ambiguity to be the product of a Western vision aimed at reifying or animalizing its central obsession: woman.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Harem #11’ 2009, Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Harem #11’, 2009. Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Essaydi often returns to Marrakesh and uses her family’s home dating back to the 16th century for her backdrop and uses family acquaintances as her models, while living in New York City. According to Kinsey Katchka, curator, scholar and art consultant who pens the artist’s biography and the book’s final essay, Essaydi plumbs the roots of her own heritage, while making astute observations as a diasporic artist:

Because Essaydi left home early in life, she has relied on memory to recall the time when the notion of “home” was more clearly defined and delineated. With the distance of time and geography, Morocco has become something Essaydi has sought, recreated and reclaimed through writing, art, and memory. The inscribed texts and architectural settings are partly autobiographical as she reflects on past, present and the diasporic space between cultures. Essaydi believes her work, with its very intimate portrayal of Moroccan women and the private spaces they inhabit, would not have been possible without distance from her homeland.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Bullets Revisited #1’ 2012, triptych. Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Lalla Essaydi, ‘Bullets Revisited #1’, 2012, triptych. Image courtesy the artist and of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

Throughout the book, relevant historical pieces weave together the themes of the colonial past and Essaydi’s “visual vocabulary”. It is argued that this misplaced idea of exotic eroticism has provided the fuel to institute conservative restrictions for women in the META region. At the most visceral level, Essaydi’s tapestries embrace us, while challenging us, daring us, to look away – but from what?

More about the artist

Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956) holds a BFA from Tufts University with a focus in Women and Art (1999), a Diploma in Photography and Installation from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (1999) and an MFA in Painting and Photography from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University (2003). The artist was the 2012 recipient of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston Medal Winner.

Essaydi’s work is found in numerous public and private collections worldwide, including the Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art (Qatar), the Asian Civilizations Museum (Singapore), the British National Museum (United Kingdom), the International Museum of Photography and Film George Eastman House (United States), the Jordan National Museum of Art (Jordan) and the Louvre (France).

Upcoming and current exhibitions include “She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World” at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh (May to September 2015), “Lalla Essaydi: Photographs” at the San Diego Museum of Art (April to August 2015), and a solo show at the Musée d’Ethnographie de Genève, Geneva, Switzerland scheduled for November 2016.

Lisa Pollman


Related Topics: Moroccan artistsbook reviewsIslamic art, photography, politicalwoman power

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By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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