Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc

Edwynn Houk Gallery
September 28 – November 21, 2007

" Les Femmes du Maroc # 1" from 2005 © Lalla Essaydi/Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York

In Les Femmes du Maroc, Lalla Essaydi revisits her past. She was born in Morocco and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years before moving to Boston, where she received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in 2003. In these recent photographs, which are blown up to large scale, Essaydi addresses the lives and identities of women in Islamic societies. Her perspective, shaped by personal experience in both Arabic and Western societies, is sensitive and insightful. She fuses intimate portrait photography with Islamic calligraphy in a distinctive style that employs compositional structures derived from 19th-Century Orientalist painting. The depictions of harem scenes by Delacroix, Ingres and Matisse come to mind, as well as Iranian artist Shirin Neshat, whose work has long focused on women’s social, political and psychological experiences in contemporary Islamic societies.

However, Essaydi has her own clear voice. Her subject is not new, but her treatment is convincing, tranquil and elegant. Her palette is minimal. Nuances of crème and henna are dominant, with only the dark eyes of the women adding the occasional dramatic contrast. Meanwhile, calligraphy weaves through the pictures like knots of yarn in a carpet, covering bodies, gowns and backgrounds alike. Here, language provides visual texture and rhythm, its traditional implications superseded by a strong contemporary aesthetic. It is this stylistic simplicity that prevents Essaydi’s work from slipping into ornamentation. Nevertheless, historic associations are close at hand, such as the famous Aleppo room (16th Century, Syria) now in the collection of the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. The room, built by a rich merchant, is known for the Arabic verses that cover every inch of its architectural space. Whereas in this case, the calligraphy describes the owner’s wealth and piety, in Essaydi it is less spiritual than existential: it illustrates her sitter’s disguised identity.

Les Femmes du Maroc is set within an unoccupied house, owned by the artist’s family, where Essaydi was sent as a punishment for childhood disobedience. With this in mind, one cannot help but think of these interiors as a land of bad dreams. In her work, Essaydi has discussed the customs in Muslim countries that confine women to private spaces, such as the home, while men expand into the public domain. For the women, imagination becomes the only refuge. These images remind me of the poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben’s lyrics from 1842, which in 1848 would express the spirit of the German March Revolution. The beginning goes: “Thoughts are free who could guess them? They fly by like nightly shadows. No human can know them, no hunter can shoot them…”

By employing calligraphy, an Islamic art form reserved exclusively for men, Essaydi empowers her subjects as well as liberates them from traditional restrictions. Her women are strong and forever mysterious, since society’s strictures circumscribe most forms of contact. Their expressions are subtle, well measured and never provocative. Their white burkas, covered with calligraphed words, seem to fuse with the background. The women become one with the thoughts that surround them, as if their secrets and spirit have themselves become illustrations of their surroundings. Yet they cannot avoid the misfortune of possessing no outlet of expression, of being fated to perpetual silence. This voicelessness, contrasted with such a wealth of words, is at the core of the complexity of Arab female identity and a true tragedy for any human being.

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