The first time I saw one of of Lalla Essaydi's photographs was at a show at the Museum of the African Diaspora ( MoAD ). That photograph was of Arab women, dressed in a cream or white gown, veiled, and posed against a light beige background. The piece was fairly small - maybe 11" x 12" - and the whole surface was covered with Arabic script, written in what I later discovered to be ink made with henna. It was stunningly beautiful, elegant, mysterious and very intriguing.
Her recurring theses are Islam, feminism, and female resistance to Islamic customs that demean and oppress women. By shrouding the women in the customary burkas, draping them in cloth or, as in the case of some of the photos in the current show at Jenkins Johnson, posing them in an Moroccan palace where their gowns merge with the elaborate tiles and architectural details, Essaydi purports to criticize Western Oriental fantasies.
As even the most casual viewer of Western painting knows, painters from Delacroix to Ingres to others less famous have used the harem to indulge in paintings of voluptuous women, lolling around in states of undress, just waiting for their lord's command. The forbidden nature of the harem was part of its lure for Western audiences, and part of the erotic appropriation as well.
The Harem series is highly colored and set within the elaborate architecture of the Moroccan palace Dar al Basha. The artist created the fabric that her subjects wear, gowns that are patterned on the elaborate tiles and carvings of the palace. As in her other works, the models merge into the background and each piece is covered with hand written Arabic calligraphy.
This series is, among other things, photographs taken inside a harem with some personal family history. Essaydi was obsessed with the place and didn't understand that obsession with until family members told her that her father had grown up in that harem.
The Pasha had been her grandmother's guardian, divorced her from her husband and kept the mother and son in the harem - the custom of the time then as now. So, she was channeling some psychic memory of her family's past.
Essaydi want to "wanted to present a harem area that's not in the Western or Orientalist tradition. It's something real and painful - it's life for these women, their kids and family. It's not always a beautiful odalisque laying down, ready for consummation."
By using a sacred Islamic script, Essaydi mounts a small act of defiance against the oppression of women in the Middle East, a region where women today account for two thirds of the region's illiterates. (Arab Human Development Report 2002, p.52).
The artist grew up in Morocco, lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and now lives in New York City. “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes,” she has said.
Les femmes du Maroc. Le Grand Odalesque
The stylistic simplicity in Essaydi's work prevents it from becoming merely decorative but does not support the weight of her political statements. The subjects of her gaze are covered with her indecipherable and personal calligraphy, But while they do not solely present an oriental tinged sexuality to the viewer, they still have no voice of their own. Nor does her calligraphy illuminate what might have been their voices, for it is untranslatable.
Essaydi's large scale photographs are sensual, stunningly beautiful. But I don't buy the theory that she's transformed the work into an act of rebellion - either against the male gaze, outdated theories of Orientalism a la Edward Said or as an act of rebellion against Muslim oppression of women. It's still an Arabian Nights fantasy, women posed in gorgeous settings, passive, beautiful. The occasional saucy glance at the viewer is not an act of defiance, but a sexy and demure "come hither."
Les Femmes du Maroc #16
Their elegantly draped bodies do not challenge male privilege. They are sexual commodities, presented to the voyeuristic eye.
LALLA ESSAYDI: LES FEMMES DU MAROC. Through Dec 3rd.at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, 464 Sutter St, San Francisco
All photographs courtesy of Jenkins Johnson Gallery.