I am writing - Lalla Essaydi

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
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).
Reina Lewis, Gendering Orientalism: Race, Femininity, and Representation (New York: Routledge,
Sarah Graham-Brown, Images of Women: The Portrayal of Women in Photography of the Middle East
1860–1950 (London: Quartet Books, 1988).
Edward Said, Orientalism, (New York: Pantheon, 1978).
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.
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).
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).
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa,” trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen, Signs 1 (1976): 87593.
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).