Lalla Essaydi

1956 | Tameslouht, Morocco

Moroccan painter, photographer and visual artist.

Lalla Essaydi’s practice explores the intersection of womanhood with the personal, the historical, the cultural and the political. Shaped by a decidedly transnational life, her work considers the boundaries of physical, social and psychological space for women brought up in the Muslim world. Born into a traditional Muslim family outside Marrakesh, Morocco, L. Essaydi raised her own family in Saudi Arabia. She began her artistic career as an adult, when she studied painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1990s. In Paris she was enthralled and disturbed by the nineteenth century Orientalist paintings she saw in the museums there. After moving to the United States, she enrolled as an undergraduate at Tufts University in Medford before earning a Master of Fine Arts degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2003, where photography became an important expressive tool in her practice.

The artist returns to her childhood in Morocco, both geographically and conceptually, in her large-scale, intensively planned photographic tableaux that deconstruct the devices of Orientalism: the veil, the odalisque and the harem. She notes, “In my work, I want viewers of my paintings and photographs to be aware that Orientalism is a voyeuristic tradition, but I also want them to appreciate the authentic beauty of the culture being depicted.” The Louvre famously acquired her photograph La Grande Odalisque (2008) in 2010 and installed it in conversation with Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s version.

L. Essaydi is best known for conceptually and decoratively layered photographic series that combine writing, the veiled female body and intimate interiors. Her models are Moroccan women, usually her own family or friends. L. Essaydi uses henna to inscribe Arabic calligraphy on the bodies, clothing and sometimes surroundings of her subjects, merging two traditionally gendered visual languages into a mostly illegible immersive text. The navigation of space, architectural or metaphorical, private or public, is key to L. Essaydi’s exploration of gender. In her early series The Three Silences (2002-2003) and Converging Territories (2003-2005), the artist staged her photographs in an abandoned home owned by her family in Morocco, where young women were sent into isolation when they transgressed permissible behavioural norms. In Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-2009), this time shot in L. Essaydi’s Boston studio, her veiled subjects are arranged into compositions lifted from Orientalist masterpieces in order to occupy, disrupt and denude the fantasies of Western male artists. She moved beyond the personal into the historic and the national in her Harem series (2009-2010), produced in the decoratively resplendent and historically charged harem quarters of the Pasha Thami El Glaoui’s Dar al-Basha palace in Marrakesh, today a national historical site. In her more recent Bullets series (20011-2012), in which she used bullet casings to construct glittering mosaics that surround and envelop her subjects, she engaged with an expanded, more explicitly violent geopolitical frame. In all her works, L. Essaydi’s subjects challenge the viewer with their self-possession and undeniable command of the space they occupy. Revisions, the first retrospective exhibition of L. Essaydi’s work was organised by Kinsey Katchka for the National Museum of African Art of Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, in 2012-2013 and brought together the artist’s paintings, photographs and multimedia installations for the first time. Solo exhibitions have since been held at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2015 and at the Newport Art Museum in 2018-2019.

Perrin M. Lathrop

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