Indelible: The Photographs of Lalla Essaydi Write yourself. Your body must be heard. Only then will the immense resources of the unconscious spring forth. -- Hélène Cixous I am writing. I am writing on me. I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began. -- Lalla Essaydi In Lalla Essaydi’s Converging Territories #10 (figure), a seated woman with long, curly black hair—the artist herself—turns her back to the viewer so her face cannot be seen. A brush in one hand and a small bowl of henna paste by her side, she covers her skin, her dress, and the fabric that envelops the space she occupies with line after line of Arabic calligraphy. “Take a person out of her cocoon and watch her quiver in confusion,” she writes, “Holding onto ideas, sleeping (sometimes not) with a vision so real, so defined, a vision of a perfect world.” Essaydi’s stream-of-consciousness text lays bare her most intimate thoughts about her status as a newly independent Moroccan woman living in the United States and fulfilling her ambition to be an artist.1 As subjects, Moroccan women in art are not new. For centuries, European and American painters, among them Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), John Singer Sargent (1856–1925), and Henri Matisse (1869–1954), depicted the women of Arab North Africa reclining in the nude or in exotic dress.2 In the Orientalist fantasy, a sexual paradise lies beyond the veil and the barrier of seclusion. Photographs taken at the height of Western colonialism in the Islamic world from the mid-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth centuries further reinforced the visual clichés and the stereotypes of the odalisque and the harem.3 These photographs, which circulated widely as picture postcards and as illustrations to books and magazines, were shot in a documentary style, but in fact employed staging along with artificial poses pleasing to men. Edward Said and other postcolonial theorists writing since the 1970s have brought attention to the significant role that such demeaning imagery played in the imposition of Western imperial power in the Arab world.4 To a remarkable extent, this caricatured version of the East lives on in the Western imagination even today. Essaydi recognizes the need to create a new visual identity for Arab women and the importance of self-representation to that task.5 In her photographs, the artist and her sitters frequently perform scenes from Orientalist paintings and she stages them like colonial postcards, but by inserting her effusive calligraphic script between viewer and subject she inhibits the traditional Western male gaze. Essaydi appropriates, manipulates, and rewrites Orientalist imagery to break its powerful hold. Multi-layered and complex, Essaydi’s work moves beyond a critique of Western art history to implicate time honored Islamic visual traditions as well. Arabic calligraphy, or beautiful writing, is a noble art practiced only by men and associated closely with copying the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book. As a woman, Essaydi has had to teach herself calligraphy. She has mastered the elegant maghribi script typical of the Qur’ans of her native North Africa but uses it to express herself instead of embellish sacred verses.6 What is more, she writes not in ink on paper but henna on the body. Adorning young woman with dye extracted from the henna plant for marriage and fertility celebrations is a tradition dating back to the Bronze Age that still survives in many Islamic cultures. Henna artists, who are all female, produce intricate, beautiful designs that leave an imprint on the skin that lasts several weeks. In part because it is so transitory but mainly because it is women’s work, henna body painting is considered craft or domestic art as opposed to the high art of calligraphy. By combining the two, Essaydi ignores and ultimately undermines the long-standing gender associations of both art forms and the hierarchical distinctions between them. Whether challenging Western or Islamic art historical traditions, or both simultaneously, as is most often the case, Essaydi aims, as she has explained, “to get beyond stereotypes and convey my own experience as an Arab woman.” One of her most successful works in this regard is Converging Territories #21 (figure). The large scale upon which she has produced it is indicative of its significance to her enterprise. Four females of different ages are represented in various stages of veiling.7 The grown woman on the far left is fully covered from top to bottom while the head, hands, and feet of the young girl on the right are bare, and there is a range in between. Muslim viewers, who are conditioned to read from right to left, the way Arabic is written, see this sequence of images as a representation of the hijab, the Islamic code of modest dress, and the biological process of a girl becoming a woman as it is charted through veiling. Western viewers, on the other hand, read these images from left to right and find satisfaction in seeing more and more of the face revealed, especially since in the West the veil is often regarded as a sign of oppression and a symbol of difference perpetuated by Muslims. There are these two points of view, and then there is a third, Essaydi’s own. She counters all expectations by writing upon the veil. In her hands, the veil becomes an instrument to reveal, not conceal, her identity. With her insistent use of calligraphy, especially on the body, and concern for making the interior exterior, Essaydi makes a significant and highly original contribution to écriture feminine, or female writing, a concept first formulated in the 1970s by the Algerian-born intellectual Hélène Cixous. The artist answers Cixous’ call to women “to transform their history, to seize the occasion to speak.”8 In doing so, Essaydi demonstrates how especially vital that task is for her and other Moroccan women who have not been encouraged or even permitted to express themselves in the public sphere. Essaydi’s autobiography may be seen as a microcosm of women’s struggle for greater freedom. The artist was born in the city of Marrakech in 1956 into a large and conservative landowning family. As a child, whenever she misbehaved, she was banished to a rural house, with no one but caretakers around her, for a few days at a time to contemplate her transgressions. Her father reserved this type of punishment for female members of the family, and such pronounced gender inequality stung her most when she turned fifteen. To celebrate her birthday, Essaydi’s older brothers took her to a Westernstyle nightclub, a place forbidden by her father. Her brothers were not disciplined while she was cast into exile for an entire month. To Essaydi, this home became “a space marked by memory.” A long time would pass, however, before Essaydi would be able to reflect upon the indelible experiences of her childhood in her art. She was just sixteen when she left Morocco to marry an older man in Saudi Arabia. For years, she focused on her role as his wife and as the mother of their two children. She took up painting, an acceptable hobby for a woman, but hid her most provocative work. When her son and daughter went to Boston to attend university in the mid-1990s, Essaydi accompanied them and enrolled herself in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/Tufts University, where she received a BFA (1999) and a MFA (2003) in painting and photography. In this environment, she had unprecedented freedom to grow as both artist and thinker. She learned to make technically sophisticated chromogenic prints while also gaining greater exposure to feminist and postcolonial theories. Essaydi now lives in Boston and New York but returns regularly to Morocco to confront her past and to herald her future. In what she calls workshops, she gathers with up to twenty other women and girls and shoots photographs in the same house where she was punished as a girl. These women pose after long sessions in which the artist inscribes their bodies and clothing with calligraphy. All the while the women listen to music, eat and drink, and talk about the female experience in Moroccan society. “We think of ourselves a feminist group,” Essaydi has said. To a notable degree, Essaydi’s distinctive artistic process borrows from Moroccan wedding customs, and most especially the rituals of the Night of the Henna. At this ceremony the hands and feet of the bride are adorned with lacey henna designs. Along with female friends and family members the bride dances, sings, and feasts. Essaydi consciously invokes the connection between her work and this celebration in the Night of the Henna, a series of still lifes representing the customary gifts given that evening to the bride, which include eggs, sugar cones, candles, and lilies (figures). As tradition dictates, all these objects are a pure, virginal white, but Essaydi covers them, too, with her calligraphic commentary. By doing so, she signals the complexity and contradictions of the gifts, as seen from her point of view. To be sure, there is an inherent beauty in these feminine objects and they celebrate women and their fertility but are also part of a patriarchal system that ensures a woman’s subjugation throughout her life. These objects punctuate a young woman’s transition from her father’s to her husband’s home, into what is oftentimes an arranged marriage. One of the most important things that Essaydi does in her photographs is to show how confining the space of the home, no matter how richly it is ornamented, can be for Moroccan women. In one of her earliest series of photographs, The Silence of Thought, the colorful tiles, woodwork, and carpets of the house remain visible. In Silence of Thought #5 (figure), three women stand before closed doors in a narrow passageway. The architectural environment is at once extraordinarily beautiful and overwhelmingly oppressive. The women do not even look beyond their carefully circumscribed space. In the later Converging Territories series, Essaydi began draping the walls, floor, and furnishings of the home with fabric, and writing on those surfaces, too.9 In some instances, such as Converging Territories #29 (figure), the sepia-toned calligraphy dominates the otherwise colorless composition so completely that the figure dissolves into the background. In her most recent series, Les Femmes du Maroc, Essaydi adds a second, bigger and bolder layer of calligraphy. The gestural vigor of the strokes heightens the overall expressive effect of the images and declares even more forcefully that she is an artist with a tremendous amount to say. Essaydi is one of several female Muslim artists, including Shirin Neshat (b. 1957), Ghada Amer (b. 1963), and Jananne Al-Ani (b. 1966), now at the forefront of contemporary art. Their contribution is by no means marginal. The binary oppositions that have shaped their lives—East/West, colonizer/colonized, male/female, Islamic/Christian, tradition/modernity—have, on a much grander scale, affected the course of world history for well over a thousand years. These artists lead the way in shattering the stereotypes that determined our past but hopefully not our future. Trinita Kennedy Associate Curator 1 Essaydi belongs to a larger group of artists who come from the Islamic World but work in Western Europe or North and South America. See Fereshteh Daftari, Without Boundary: Seventeen Ways of Looking, exh. cat. (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2006). 2 Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity, and Representation (New York: Routledge, 1996). 3 Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East 1860–1950 (London: Quartet Books, 1988). 4 Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Pantheon, 1978). 5 For the larger context of Essaydi’s enterprise, see Barbara Thompson, “Decolonizing Black Bodies: Personal Journeys in the Contemporary Voice,” in Black Womanhood: Images, Icons, and Ideologies of the African Body, exh. cat. (Hanover, Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2008), 279–311. 6 Essaydi is one of many contemporary Islamic artists incorporating calligraphy in their work. For others, see Venetian Porter, Word into Art: Artists of the Modern Middle East, exh. cat. (London: The British Museum, 2006). 7 On the veil in contemporary visual culture, see Veil: Veiling, Representation and Contemporary Art, ed. David A. Baiey and Gilane Tawadros (Cambridge: MIT Press; London, Institute of International Visual Arts, 2003). 8 Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 (1976): 87593. 9 On this series, see Susan Denker, “Lalla A. Essaydi: Converging Territories,” Nka, Journal of Contemporary African Art 19 (Summer 2004): 86–87; Amanda Carlson, Lalla Essaydi: Converging Territories (New York: Powerhouse Books, 2005).
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