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Lalla Essaydi - Artists - Edwynn Houk Gallery

Essaydi recasts each painting, stripping it of nearly all decoration and affectation. She removes the opulent color, the elaborate décor, and the male figures that occupy European Orientalist paintings so that, in her own work, women and their gestures become the sole focal point. Rather than simply replicating the centuries–old Western tradition of exoticizing the Eastern “other” and the female body, the artist inserts her own narrative—literally and figuratively—into the images, thereby inviting viewers to reconsider mythologies of an imaginary notion of the Orient. More than simply cultural critique—whether of Arabic, Islamic, or Euro–American narratives—Essaydi subverts the terms of those cultures by appropriating their visual vocabularies.

Photographs by Lalla Essaydi: L’Écriture Féminine / Le Corps Féminin
Photo provided by Flickr

In both series, flowing cloth—pure in its unbleached, natural hue—covers women and scenes that are carefully staged by the artist. In deceptively simple settings, the only visible surfaces are cloth and skin. Essaydi ornately inscribes both with henna, a natural dye associated with women’s adornment throughout the Islamic world.


Lalla Essaydi’s artistic work is at once imposing and intimate
Photo provided by Flickr

But the delicate patterning is not purely aesthetic, nor are these women merely silent beauties to behold. The design is narrative text, written in Arabic and excerpted from Essaydi’s personal journal in which she considers and reconsiders her experience as a woman, Muslim, Arab, and African. Although she remains behind the camera, these photographs constitute an intimate portrait of the artist.

Widely identified with special occasions, the powdered henna, mixed into a paste and applied to the skin, effloresces and wears away. Although henna’s substantive form is ephemeral, its traces remain on the skin for several weeks and record its fleeting presence. In Essaydi’s photographs, delicate webs of henna and its residual designs stream across the picture plane, only intermittently interrupted by a form—a face, a hand, a foot, a flower—that at times also bears its deep red–brown mark. In this context, henna evokes a sense of memory, the reliving of a personal and collective past.

LALLA ESSAYDI (B. 1956) , Converging Territories #16, …

. gay marriage pros and cons Paddle8. lalla essaydi converging territories Remember Me.
Photo provided by Flickr

While the photographs provide a space for Essaydi to voice her own reflections, they are not uniquely personal; they also represent a narrative shared by women with similar understandings of Islamic heritage, cultural mobility, and gender identity. Indeed, Essaydi considers this work a collaborative endeavor undertaken with the Moroccan women who pose for her photographs. The images are captured after hours of preparation. As the models and backdrops are painted with henna, the artist and her collaborators engage in a lively exchange, recounting memories and experiences of being women of Moroccan heritage. The images, then, depict women in repose, caught in moments of quietude, rather than immutably silenced. Essaydi’s photographs reverberate with their conversations, past and present.

The serenity and elegance of these photographs belie their subversive nature. Essaydi transgresses gender stereotypes by using calligraphy, a sacred Islamic art form traditionally reserved for men. Even more, she expresses herself through calligraphic script, rather than writing in the service and spirit of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, as convention dictates. Subjecting text and content to her will, the artist employs writing as a delicate act of defiance against a culture in which women have been relegated to the private sphere.

The Photography of Lalla Essaydi, ..
Photo provided by Flickr
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Converging Territories #30 - Interalia Magazine

Essaydi’s distinctive artistic process is indebted to Moroccan wedding customs, which include adorning women’s bodies during the Night of the Henna, an elaborate celebration that is a prelude to the wedding itself. On the eve of her marriage, the bride and her female friends and family members come together to apply henna to her hands and feet in intricate designs. In the Apparel still–lifephotographs of the Converging Territories series, instead of ornamenting women’s bodies and skin, Essaydi writes upon objects that are customary wedding gifts, such as flowers, eggs, and sugar. In the context of Essaydi’s larger body of work, in which women’s bodies are so inscribed, the gifts associated with the bride invoke her presence.

Converging Territories #30 2004

Returning to her home country and childhood, Essaydi photographed Moroccan women and girls in this family house. In the act of taking it over, she literally redressed it through careful staging. She reversed the connotation of these spaces, transforming them into a place where women are seen, not hidden. Especially when Essaydi’s work is understood as a collaboration between the artist and her models, this site becomes a place of intimate dialogue and expression, where voices are unleashed rather than muted.

Refacing the narrative of Art and life

The ambiguous space of the photographs resonates with Essaydi’s personal experience and, perhaps, her frame of mind. Relocating multiple times during her lifetime has required multiple reinventions of self, particularly when cultures are crossed, children are raised, and time has passed. The space the artist occupies, then, is ill defined, located between cultures, traditions, and histories. These works, abstracted from a definitive place, conjure the distance between the artist and her homeland.

2017-05-18 · LALLA ESSAYDI (B. 1956) Converging Territories #16, 2003 chromogenic print, face-mounted to acrylic, flush-mounted on …

In Les Femmes du Maroc, Essaydi once again stages Moroccan women in enigmatic spaces awash with text. Rather than taking a site from her past as a point of departure, in this more recent series she engages the imaginary spaces of specific nineteenth–century Orientalist paintings in which European artists rendered their romanticized impressions of the Islamic world. The name Essaydi has given the series, Les Femmes du Maroc, is itself a play on the title Les Femmes d’Algiers (1834), a well–known painting by the French Romantic artist Eugène Delacroix.

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