Returning the Gaze: Lalla Essaydi

In celebration of NMWA’s 30th anniversary, and inspired by the museum’s focus on contemporary women artists as catalysts for change, Revival illuminates how women working in sculpture, photography, and video use spectacle and scale for expressive effect.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #20, 2014; Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 30 x 40 in.; Courtesy Miller Yezerski Gallery © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #20, 2014; Chromogenic print mounted on aluminum, 30 x 40 in.; Courtesy Miller Yezerski Gallery © Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco)

Born and raised in Morocco, Lalla Essaydi now lives and works in New York. She received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University in 2003 and has since participated in several major exhibitions around the world.

Essaydi’s intricately staged photographs not only draw the viewer in with their scale and beauty, but go further to challenge 19th century Orientalist mythology, which portrayed Arab women as sexual objects for male fantasy. While she often imitates the poses of Orientalist painters, she controls the gaze. Essaydi portrays her subjects clothed and covered in henna calligraphy. This stylistic choice challenges the tradition of calligraphy as a male-dominated art form.

The Artist’s Voice:

“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”—Lalla Essaydi, artist’s website

“There are so many layers to my work, and some of them are just for me. If the viewer does not discover it on their own, I’m not going to talk about it because I have always been told how to behave, what to say, how to see things, how to think, and I don’t want to impose that on the viewers by stating everything. I do what I do for myself, before anything else. ”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in Africa is a Country

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Three chromogenic prints mounted on aluminum, 66 x 150 in. overall; National Museum of Women in the Arts, Purchased with funds provided by Jacqueline Badger Mars, Sunny Scully Alsup and William Alsup, Mr. Sharad Tak and Mrs. Mahinder Tak, Marcia and Frank Carlucci, and Nancy Nelson Stevenson; © Lalla Essaydi

Revival Highlight:

Two of Essaydi’s photographs from her “Bullets Revisited” series are on view. A recent acquisition into NMWA’s permanent collection, the triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012) portrays a reclining woman, whose skin and garments are covered in henna calligraphy, against a background embellished in silver and gold bullet casings. By presenting this photograph in a triptych format, the fragmentation of the body denies a voyeuristic view of the figure. In Bullets Revisited #20 (2014), she cocooned her seated model with a cape encrusted with similar casings. Essaydi explains her use of bullets as a commentary on violence against women in a new post-revolutionary era following the Arab Spring.

Visit the museum and explore Revival, on view through September 10, 2017.

—Roseline Odhiambo is the summer 2017 digital engagement intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

Deconstructing Orientalism in “She Who Tells a Story”

NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World is organized around three themes: Deconstructing Orientalism, Constructing Identities, and New Documentary.

She Who Tells a Story on view at NMWA, Photo: Lee Stalsworth

She Who Tells a Story on view at NMWA, Photo: Lee Stalsworth

Orientalism” refers to ideas about Eastern cultures that reflect Western fantasies and political priorities rather than reality. The 19th-century art movement established many artistic conventions that have had a lasting impact on how these regions—and their inhabitants—are portrayed.

The artists in She Who Tells a Story show an awareness of the influence of Orientalism on the representation of Iran and the Arab world.

By critiquing Orientalist artistic conventions, these artists forge a place for themselves as narrators of their own experiences rather than objects of fantasy.

Objectification of the Female Body

Many works in She Who Tells a Story examine the role of the female body in Orientalist imagery. Lalla Essaydi’s Bullets Revisited #3 reveals the inherent violence in objectified representations of women.

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

The triptych portrays a reclining woman covered with henna calligraphy and surrounded by bullet casings. The subject simultaneously entices viewers with beauty and confronts them with violence, signified by the bullet casings and fragmentation of the body. The photograph mingles violence and pleasure as the figure’s gaze confronts viewers.

Exotification and Imperialism

Artists also engage with the Orientalist tradition to reveal its political ties to imperialism. Rania Matar’s Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” echoes the work of 19th-century Orientalist painters, whose popular works often showed idle figures in exotic but decaying settings.

Rania Matar, Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2009; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Rania Matar, Mariam, Bourj al Shamali Palestinian Refugee Camp, Tyre, Lebanon, from the series “A Girl and Her Room,” 2009; Pigment print, 36 x 50 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Carroll and Sons, Boston; © Rania Matar

Art historians have argued that this convention implies that the people portrayed are passive and morally deficient—a political message meant to justify colonization. The identification of the setting of this photograph as a refugee camp questions these assumptions by linking idleness and disrepair to war and displacement rather than moral failings. This, along with the subject’s direct and self-aware gaze, exposes the fallacy of Orientalist reasoning and redirects moral scrutiny onto the legacy of colonialism that continues to contribute to modern conflict.

From Object to Subject

The ongoing use of Orientalist imagery is a major concern for many of the artists featured in She Who Tells a Story. By deconstructing the political and visual conventions of Orientalism, artists like Lalla Essaydi and Rania Matar expose their violence and inaccuracy. The destruction of the Orientalist fantasy of Middle Eastern womanhood also allows for the possibility of female subjects—women who can see, think, create, and tell their own stories.

—Kait Gilioli is the summer 2016 publications and communications/marketing intern at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Lalla Essaydi

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World offers a vision of the world she has witnessed.

Lalla Essaydi

(b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco; lives New York)

Essaydi began her career as a painter—she developed an interest in photography first as a means of documenting her other work, and then, she says, “It became a medium I fell in love with.” She creates multilayered images that confront the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of North African and Middle Eastern women.

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

Her images often focus on a woman or small group of women whose clothing and bodies are decorated to match their surroundings. She uses henna—reclaiming the traditionally “male art of calligraphy”—to challenge gender dynamics within Moroccan and Arab cultures and between the East and West.

In Her Own Words

“When I was at school I made a huge Orientalist painting, and a curator from a museum was interested in it. When I tried to show her my other works, she had less enthusiasm. She only wanted the big fantasy. I started talking about the work, and she was surprised, she had thought the image was autobiographical. I was shocked that an expert in this area of art didn’t even know it was just a sexual fantasy.”

“From that moment, I knew I needed to do something. I am an Arab woman, and I don’t see myself in these paintings. A lot of people ask me why I choose to dwell on this issue, and it’s because it’s not solved.  It may not be about the odalisque now, but the odalisque is what later became the veiled female figure. If we don’t unveil that founding myth first, we cannot begin to address the rest.”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in ArtAsiaPacific

What’s On View?

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

The large-scale triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), a set of chromogenic prints on aluminum, is in many ways characteristic of her work: it references Orientalism by depicting a woman lying down, and her body and clothing provide a canvas for henna calligraphy. In addition to henna, however, her surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and golden bullet casings. With these, Essaydi evokes symbolic violence and restrictions on women.

The work’s visible black film borders emphasize the image’s artifice. It is large and visually lush, but Essaydi uses the borders, as well as the elaborate setup and deliberately abstracted, uninviting space, to underscore the fact that it does not reflect reality.

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.