Lalla Essaydi Biography
“Art is our human birthright, our most powerful means of access to our own and another’s experience and imaginative life. In continually rediscovering and recovering the humanity of human beings, art is crucial to the democratic vision (Rich, 101.)” In discussing my artist Lalla Essaydi, it is imperative that I understand what constitutes being an artist. Through Rich’s statement I can start to understand the human side of art and be more understanding about Essaydi’s experiences and the validity of her opinion in her work.
Lalla Essaydi is a successful and famous painter and photographer. She was born in 1956 in Marrakech, Morocco, and spent her childhood there as well as Saudi Arabia. She grew up in a family where her father was a successful painter. As a young girl, Essaydi was brought up in a strict Islamic household, which aided her in forming her identity as an artist. In an artist description, the Lisa Sette Gallery gives us a taste of Essaydi’s childhood days. It states, “an empty family house in Morocco is the setting for her current body of work; as a young girl, when Essaydi acted inappropriately according to the rules of her traditional Islamic family, she was sent to this house as punishment, in a sort of solitary confinement. Having grown up in both Morocco and Saudi Arabia before receiving an art education in the U.S., Essaydi now returns to the site of her childhood confinements and sees the space as delineating both her Arabic background and her current life as an independent Western artist (Lisa Sette Gallery).” This description is key in understanding the meaning behind Essaydi’s work. In terms of higher education, she was lucky enough to be educated in the Western World, more specifically in Europe and The United States. The duality of educational experiences she received further added to her credibility as a woman of two worlds. Essaydi after living in Morocco, and then Saudi Arabia, settled in Boston. “In 1994, Essaydi studied painting at L’Ecole Des Beaux Arts in Paris, France. She has a Diploma in photography and installation from School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, MA. In 1999, Essaydi received a B.F.A from Tufts University, Medford and M.A and M.F.A from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and Tufts University in 2003 (Waterhouse and Dodd).” So after being discovered in graduate school by a journalist her career took off. Her accomplishments in the field of education added to her credibility as a female artist. From then on, Essaydi has been establishing herself, releasing various paintings and photographs and being displayed in various galleries. In looking at Essaydi’s work objectively, it is obvious that her work revolves around her cultural background. Staying sensitive to her Islamic culture while trying to preserve Western ideals has been a clear focus in her work. In the Lisa Sette description, her artist style is explained. “Painting with henna, Essaydi applies the calligraphy when preparing for her photo shoots. In writing Arabic calligraphy, Essaydi reveals that she is “practicing a sacred Islamic art, usually inaccessible to women.” The script is used for poetry and religious writing—texts concerned with meaning in the public sphere—and it is generally taught only to men. On the other hand, painting with henna is traditionally a woman’s art; henna is used to decorate women’s hands and feet for celebrations of puberty, marriage and motherhood. Essaydi’s eloquent subversion of the two mediums examines the perceived division between worldly (or male) and decorative and domestic realms. According to the artist, her intention is that “The two are not so much in opposition as interwoven. The ‘veil’ of decoration and concealment has not been rejected, but instead has been integrated with the expressive intention of calligraphy.” Essaydi’s innovative techniques in her art can be seen especially through the application of henna in her work. Its very significant that she uses henna in her work as it represents a sign of femininity including motherhood, marriage, and coming-of-age. Through her paintings and photographs, Essaydi chooses to focus solely on women, and “when they are not portraits of female figures, Essaydi’s photographs center on objects representative of female concerns: eggshells, lumps of sugar traditionally given to a new bride, and bouquets of white flowers.” So, that being said, Essaydi develops herself as a pro-feminist art by choosing to have women as the main focus of all of her art pieces. Her art is said to be inspired from the 19th Century Orientalist paintings, in which there is a huge emphasis on her henna drawn calligraphy on various mediums (Waterhouse and Dodd). Essaydi herself states, “The Orientalist painters of the 19th century had some sexual fantasies that they wanted to realize and they couldn't realize it in their own world. They chose the Arab world, in North Africa mostly, to convey that world, but it doesn't exist. Unfortunately, it was not only done then but it's still invasive now. I use the female form to respond and deconstruct that idea about the Arab women within Western art (Cheers).” Using this technique and type of art, Essaydi is able to “reach beyond Islamic culture to include the Western fascination with the odalisque, veil and harem.” Some of Essaydi’s most famous works focus on the human body and the Western and Islamic ideals associated with it.
Her obsession to integrate a type of sexual femininity and that is so clearly denied in the Muslim World caters to her success as an artist. In response to gender and her faith and her duty in portraying an Islamic woman she states defiantly, “It's my duty and my passion to show another facet of Arab women, the real Arab women to the Western world and the world in general. We are very strong, we're human beings and we have our own personality on our own. We want to be seen like that. We don't want this projection of the Western world or Islamic culture on us from both sides. We just want to be seen as human beings (Cheers).” Through all of her works and accomplishments, it is obvious to see the underlying wants of Essaydi. She feels it is her duty as an artist to proclaim the rights of the modern Muslim woman and to bridge the gap between the assumptions made by the Western World about Muslim woman and to bring the wants and needs of the Muslim woman to light. It is through her successes in art that we see her true goal of using her faith and experiences to shed light on a true feminist issue. I see many similarities between Essaydi’s art to Joanna Frueh’s The Body Through Women’s Eyes. “Feminists who portrayed the human body or used their own bodies in their art created some of the most radical and provocative works of the 1970s. Since then, the body has been an image, an idea, and an issue of continuing significance in women’s art. In the seventies, women artists became acutely aware of the social and cultural idealizations of the female form – in advertising and media, and in Western art. Idealizations of the female body reflect and enforce cultural desires about a woman’s beauty and sexuality, her social place and power (Frueh, 190).” This powerful statement displays beautifully many themes that Essaydi shows in her art. Essyadi’s art describes woman’s experiences by putting a female body at the center of her art. The success of her art is by showing the experience of Muslim women and by showing them not as objects but as humans. Her art is indicative of what Frueh speaks about. She is innovative in her ideas, but traditional about what she portrays. I am so happy that Essaydi is out in the art world trying to give Muslim women a world and a voice.
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>.
Waterhouse & Dodd. "Lalla Essaydi." Waterhouse & Dodd. Waterhouse & Dodd. Web. 12 May 2012. <http://www.waterhousedodd.com/routes/assets/pdf/LALLA%20ESSAYDI.pdf>
Lise Sette Gallery. "Lisa Sette Gallery." Lise Sette Gallery 8 (Jan. 2005). Lise Sette Gallery. Web. <http://www.lisasettegallery.com/assets/pdfs/newsletter-v8-1-essaydi.pdf>.
Edwynn Houk Gallery. "Lalla Essaydi." Edwynn Houk Gallery -. Web. 13 May 2012. <http://www.houkgallery.com/artists/lalla-essaydi/>.
Rich, Adrienne. “Why I Refused the National Medal for the Arts” in Arts of the Possible: Essays in Conversation, p. 98-103.
Frueh, Joanna. “The Body Through Women’s Eyes” in The Power of Feminist Art, p.190-207.