Lalla Essaydi’s art is striking in its efforts to combine her personal beliefs on women in the Middle East and the stereotypical Middle Eastern woman. This particular series is titled Les Femmes du Maroc and it was published between 2005 and 2006 (houkgallery). It depicts sometimes single, sometimes multiple women in various poses. The entire background and the women themselves are covered in hennaed Arabic calligraphy. When asked about Essaydi’s work, National Museum of African Art direction Johnnetta Betsch Cole said Essaydi’s art was primarily concerned with “confronting deeply entrenched historical notions about femininity and womanhood through the images of the Muslim world” (PBS).
Essaydi constructs her pictures to portray the social boundaries and restrictions women have to face. As a feminist artist, she herself once claimed it was “[her] duty and [her] passion to show another facet of Arab women, the real Arab women” (PBS). In her work, Essaydi confronts the social stereotypes of Arab women. One way she defies the construct of women in the Middle East is by choosing particular poses for her models. Many of her pictures (especially the two pictured in this post) are modeled after older Oriental paintings drawn of harem women. Harem girls are the popular image that Western culture tends to associate with Middle Eastern women. They were female dancers, courtisans, escorts, and sometimes even prostitutes that were found in the courts and palaces of kings and wealthy nobles. For example, the picture of the women lying down with her back facing the viewer (left) is posed similar to La Grande Odalisque painted by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres in 1814 (smarthistory): he originally was depicting an odalisque, or a female concubine in the Ottoman sultan’s harem. The picture on the right is posed similar to the painting Harem Life made by Juan Jimenez Y Martin (evalinapapazova). One of Essaydi’s reasons for placing her models in such strategic positions is to bridge the gap between Eastern and Western culture: she wants to “make it known that Orientalist paintings are just Western male fascination and a fantasy” (PBS). Oriental women were viewed very stereotypically as harem women, and that image has carried over to the present day. Essaydi wants to change this view because while Middle Eastern women are seen as sexual by Eastern culture, there will always be a disconnect between how Arabic women are visualized by people in other countries and how Arabic women are actually treated in the Middle East itself.
While the striking theme in this series is the disconnect between Eastern and Western views on Middle Eastern women, there are subtle themes in the photographs that point to the struggles Arabic women face. The one that stands out the most to the viewers is the obvious burqa and veil, which is one of the many restrictions Middle Eastern women are subjected to. However, the hennaed calligraphy written on the entire setting for the picture tells a different story. Calligraphy was originally only allowed to be taught to Arabic men, while henna was considered a “woman’s art, that marks ritual moments in female life” (artslope). Essaydi is challenging the social construct of Middle Eastern women as being restricted to a patriarchal society’s rules. She shows that while there are still miles to go to give these women personal freedom, there are women out there who are provocative in their actions and are willing to challenge the rules set by an ancient society. The future for these women is constantly changing: the ability to learn calligraphy is simply one step along the way.
My own outlook on Essaydi’s photography is primarily its contrast to other “provocative” works I have seen this semester. Throughout the semester, I have heard many class discussions about several novels we have read discuss the very images that Essaydi is portraying. The ideas of race as a factor in gender and religion and its affect on women are subjects we discussed many times in class. These themes of third wave feminism are especially prevalent in Essaydi’s work, being a woman in the third wave feminist movement (Jervis). Also, while studying Essaydi’s works and her background it was nice that I had some background in matters of Islamic women. In the novel Persepolis there is a discussion of the subjugation of woman from Islamic cultures by women themselves. Even in the book, Marjane is scolded and almost arrested by Guardians of the Revolution, The Women’s Branch. “This group had been added in 1982, to arrest women who were improperly veiled. Their job was to put us back on the straight and narrow by explaining the duties of Muslim women (Satrapi, 133).” This statement further explains the shaping of my knowledge on Islamic women. My first reaction was to the beauty and simplicity of the pictures themselves. Many feminist works we discussed in class, including the self-portrait by Alice Neel at age eighty (Frueh), incited a feeling of being confused and uncomfortable with the nudity I was looking at: I really had to overcome my reaction to understand the significance of the painting or picture. On the other hand, Essaydi’s work is stunningly simple: there isn’t much to react to in the photograph, but the few images that stand out (like the calligraphy and burqa/veil) make the picture self-explanatory. According to Rich, “there is a continuing dynamic between art repressed and art reborn” (Rich). Neel’s picture is perfect for the third wave of feminism, with its sexual revolution. However, the waves of feminism in the Middle East are nowhere near the progress that other countries have achieved: art like Neel’s would be considered “art repressed” (Rich). Essaydi’s work helped me realized that Frueh’s statement that “the sexual revolution permitted, even demanded, women’s exploration of sexual pleasure” (Frueh) is inconsiderate to other cultures. Women in the Middle East are still trying to gain freedom of speech, freedom to wear what they want, even freedom to enter male-dominant fields like politics or science. Essaydi’s sober pictures really helped open my eyes to the repression of women in other countries like the Middle East, and how vastly different their idea of feminism must be.
Edwynn Houk Gallery. "Lalla Essaydi." Edwynn Houk Gallery -. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.houkgallery.com/artists/lalla-essaydi/>.
"Ingres' La Grand Odalisque." - Smarthistory. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/grand-odalisque.html>.
Cheers, Imani. "Q&A: Lalla Essaydi Challenges Muslim, Gender Stereotypes at Museum of African Art." PBS. PBS, 9 May 2012. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2012/05/revisions.html>.
Anc. "Lalla Essaydi, Femmes Du Marocâ. ArtSlope." Lalla Essaydi. Les Femmes Du Marocâ, ArtSlope. 25 Jan. 2010. Web. 14 May 2012. <http://artslope.com/2010/01/25/lalla-essaydis-les-femmes-du-maroc/>.
Jimenez, Juan. Harem Life. Photograph. Evelina Papozova.
Satrapi, Marjane. Persepolis: [the Story of a Childhood]. New York: Pantheon, 2003. Print.
Jervis, Lisa. "Ms. Magazine | The End of Feminism's Third Wave: The Cofounder of Bitch Says Goodbye." Ms. Magazine | The End of Feminism's Third Wave: The Cofounder of Bitch Says Goodbye. Ms. Magazine, Winter 2004. Web. 14 May 2012 <http://www.msmagazine.com/winter2004/thirdwave.asp>.