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Thirteenth Century Persian poet and mystic Rumi once stated “Let the beauty of what you love be what you do.” Many, many years later and almost a world apart, highly influential 17th Century Parisian patroness of the arts and before-her-time voice of feminine empowerment Ninon de l'Enclos is said to have advised one of her many protégées, “That which is striking and beautiful is not always good, but that which is good is always beautiful” in order to point out the deceptive similarities between true beauty and that which is meant only to entice.

These haunting consistencies in cultural norms—seen through the eyes of modern Moroccan women—serve as context for the work of Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi’s featured exhibit at Nashville’s Frist Center for the Arts entitled “Indelible” featuring seventeen of her breathtakingly powerful works.

Dish sat down with Essaydi over coffee in order to talk about her work on the opening day of “Indelible.” Born in Marrakech, Morocco in 1956, Essaydi now lives in the United States but regularly returns to Morocco to shoot her photographs. (Ironically, Essaydi does not allow her own picture to be taken).

“It was important for me as an artist living in the Western world to go back and confront those feelings I had attached to this place,” Essaydi said, referring to the ornate family home in Morocco which served as the catalyst for many of the ideas contained in her fascinating multi-dimensional work. “In order to understand the woman I had become, I needed to re-encounter the child I once was and in order to do that, I had to look at that which surrounded and shaped my childhood.”

For centuries, European and American artists represented the women of North Africa as sensuous nudes reclining in opulent interiors. Using her work to serve as a confluence of ideas and shared experience, the women in Essaydi’s photographs often perform scenes from famous Orientalist paintings which are well-known for their titular nature. Essaydi manipulates and rewrites the imagery in an effort to break its powerful hold, thereby challenging Western as well as Islamic art’s historical traditions.  At the same time she uses this subversive imagery in order to work toward the creation of a new visual identity for Arab women, thereby confronting all of these thoughts from a point of understanding between Western and Arab women alike.

“I do not think that the physical and psychological isolation and confinement of women in the Arab world is unique by any means,” Essaydi said with sober earnestness. “Women are pressured to conform in many cultural settings to a certain code of conduct and modesty no matter where in the world they originate. It is my hope that those ideas will be recognized for what they are through the lens of my work. It is about the difference in being able to choose to follow tradition because that is what you want, as opposed to being forced into submission and coerced to conform.”

In order to produce her elaborate photographs during so-called “workshops,” Essaydi gathers with as many as 20 women and girls in her family’s country home as well as in her specially prepared studios in the US. Many of the women are family members with the same sort of experiences as those held by Essaydi. The women sit for lengthy sessions—sometimes lasting as long as twenty hours at a stretch—during which the artist covers their skin, and often their clothing and the walls around them, with an elegant Arabic calligraphic script before the final photographs containing all of the details are taken. Essaydi’s work is wrought with subtlety and metaphor using not only the symbolic staging and posing of Orientalist works but also incorporating the elaborate henna work as a sort of veil even on physically uncovered hair and skin.

“The veil is often metaphoric because in Morocco women no longer veil,” the artist pointed out. “Women past my mother’s generation are no longer expected to veil. To me the veil has become a symbol of something much bigger than it is perceived. Many times I am asked what the script says, but the very process of henna application changes the words as the ink paste dries and flakes away, causing the words to morph and change in meaning as they change in shape. In this way the words become symbolic of the secrets held beneath the veil which are often the focus of obsession, since in the Arab world a woman who is covered is considered to be in public space. In private spaces women are not covered. In these photographs the two spaces seemingly come together to form a new space entirely.”       

Her artistic process combines the traditionally female craft of henna body painting with the traditionally male art of Arabic calligraphy, subversively ignoring and ultimately undermining the long-standing gender associations of both art forms and the hierarchical distinctions Islamic societies make between them. In this way, Essaydi once more underlines not only cultural distinctions between East and West, but also between the past and the present, in regards to gender and its place in society.

“The women I work with in Morocco and the women I work with in the United States are very different, but also not so much so,” explained Essaydi. “No matter where they are living, all of them share the life experience of being an Arab woman and all that goes alongside that. I feel this is important because while my work is presented from my personal perspective, it encompasses more than just that, including the story of all Arab women, as well as women outside that culture and throughout recorded time.”

Essaydi currently lives in New York and Boston, and her work is included in the permanent collections of The Art Institute of Chicago; The Brooks Museum of Art (Memphis); The Fries Museum (Netherlands); The Museum of Fine Arts (Houston, Texas.); Williams College Museum of Art (Williamstown, Mass.) and other museums.

“Indelible: The Photographs of Lalla Essaydi” will be featured in the Gordon Contemporary Artists Project Gallery at the Frist Center for the Arts until January 25, 2009 and is accompanied by a variety of supplementary events designed to enhance the experience of Essaydi’s work. For more information and a full list of events please visit / Issue 88 - September 2018
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