Thursday, September 19, 2013

Lalla Essaydi: Reclaiming Identity

Lalla Essaydi was born in 1956 in Marrakesh, Morocco, where she spent her childhood.  She grew up in a harem, and her father had 11 wives, of which her mother was the youngest. For high school, she traveled to France, where she received some basic fine arts education. She married and moved to Saudi Arabia, where she focused on her family for the next twenty years.  Essaydi divorced her husband, but continued to live in Saudi Arabia until she moved to Paris after her children were grown to attend the Ecole des Beaux-Arts.  Shen then relocated to Boston, MA, where she received a BFA from Tufts University and an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, in Boston in 2003.   For the vast majority of her life, Essaydi lived in Arab countries, yet her perspective is strongly influenced by her experiences living and studying in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, France, and the United States.

While at art school in France and in the United States, Essaydi was exposed to the Orientalist paintings of 19th-century French artists such as Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, and Eugène Delacroix.  She recalls laughing at the scenes she saw depicted of women in harems, but was then shocked when she realized her Western colleagues had internalized these images as actual depictions of Arab women.  Although she focused on painting in art school, Essaydi was inspired to reclaim the identity of Arab women through photography.  To expose what she emphasizes as the Western male fantasy of Arab women, she focuses on and defines three main themes in her photographic work: the odalisque, the harem, and the veil.
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, La Grande Odalisque, 1814
In her 2003-2004 series, “Converging Territories,” Essaydi directly confronts what she views as the degradation of Arab women in Orientalist painting.  Here we see a transformation of the Odalisque, a word derived from the Turkish term odalik, which means to belong to a place.

Lalla Essaydi, Grande Odalisque, 2008, from “Femmes du Maroc”
Calligraphy in Morocco is strictly reserved for males, and the use of Henna, a popular plant-based dye, is traditionally applied on a woman during the various celebrations in her life–For example, coming of age rituals, marriage, and birth.  By fusing these two polarized and gender specific techniques, she challenges the boundaries between traditional Arab male and female identity.

Another theme Essaydi examines is that of the harem and how the term harem itself can refer either the group of women, or the architectural space of a house reserved for women.  Visually, she manipulates this dual definition by blending these women into the architecture around them. For her “Harem” series, she specially designed the fabric of her model’s garments to blend into the architectural patterning around them, playing with the question of where precisely women belong.  The answer to this implicit question is typically that women belong in domestic spaces. The harem itself addresses issues of public versus private space in traditional Islamic culture. Women are traditionally associated with and confined to domestic spaces, and men are associated with public spaces.  Essaydi and Moroccan sociologist, Fatema Mernissi, argue that even interior Islamic ornament and architecture speak to the confinement of women (1).

Lalla Essaydi, Harem #2, 2009
Lalla Essaydi, Harem #14C, 2009

Essaydi emphasizes this psychological confinement of women in her compositions. Essaydi argues that the veil is yet another representation of private space for women. (2)

Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories #26, 2003
Lalla Essaydi
Les Femmes du Maroc: Moorish Woman, 2008

Although Essaydi criticizes the Western male fantasy of Orient, she also mentions her appreciation for at least some level of beauty captured in their paintings, and it is precisely that beauty of her culture that she says she wants to capture and promote. Essaydi emphasizes that she speaks for herself and thinks it would be naïve to say she could speak for all Arab women but that she hopes the work still speaks to all Arab women in some capacity.

1. Mernissi, Fatema., and Lalla Essaydi. Les Femmes du Maroc. Brooklyn, NY: powerHouse Books, 2009.

Mernissi writes a text specifically for Essaydi’s exhibition “Les Femmes du Maroc,” in which she places Essaydi’s work in the historical context of female communication in Morocco.  She compares Essaydi’s subversive use of writing to the cleverness of Scheherazade’s storytelling in an era that sought to silence women.  She also addresses contemporary issues of consumerism and Essaydi’s work in resisting globalization and her ability to reclaim female agency and confidence.

Essaydi writes an Artist Statement similar to that in Converging Territories, but she elaborates more on spatial relationships and questions Western influence on the repression of Arab women.  She expands more on her own geographic position in the world, and how her fluidity between different West and Arab countries influences her art.

2.Mernissi, Fatema. Beyond the Veil : Male-female Dynamics in a Muslim Society. London: Saqi Books, 2011. (accessed November 25, 2012)

In her New Introduction, Mernissi discusses contemporary discourse in France surrounding Muslim women who wear the veil and argues against this Western conception of women in veils as “victims.”  This is relevant to what Essaydi is also trying to address in the problematic use of the veil in Islamic culture and how she depicts the veil in her work.  “The Meaning of Spatial Boundaries” is incredibly important in discussing the psycho-sexual boundaries of Arab men and women, particularly how those boundaries are constructed in Islamic architecture.  This historical and contemporary analyses of the division between private and public spaces in Arab countries helps explain Essaydi’s depicted space in her photography.

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