Lalla Essaydi

Born 1965

Using the lens of her personal experience, Lalla Essaydi reveals the complexity of Arab female identity by challenging stereotypes she has encountered in both the East and the West.

In photographs, paintings, installations, and films, Essaydi creates a dialogue juxtaposing past and present, as well as fantasy and reality. She references her own memories and experiences, art history, and contemporary cultural, social, and political realities in her native Morocco. 

Essaydi grew up in Marrakesh as part of a privileged, traditionally Muslim household. Following schooling in Paris, she married and moved to Saudi Arabia, where she lived until her children left for school in the United States. She then studied painting at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris, before continuing her education in Boston. Essaydi currently lives in New York City.

While in Paris, she discovered the work of 19th-century Orientalists such as Jean-Léon Gérôme, whose paintings often featured titillating images of harems and seductive female nudes, or odalisques, which appealed to Western, male audiences. Essaydi knew such artworks portrayed fictions, but she was captivated by their exquisite technique.

She assumed viewers understood that the voyeuristic scenes were imaginary, but soon discovered she was mistaken. She notes, “Beauty is quite dangerous, as it lures the viewer into accepting the fantasy.” Essaydi uses art to reveal stereotypes and question assumptions about the veil, the harem, and the odalisque.

Essaydi’s creative process is labor-intensive. Interested in the interaction between the female body and architectural spaces, she stages her models within existing sites or constructs her own elaborate settings. 

National Museum of Women in the Arts