Recently, the Kennedy Museum of Art added a few new pieces to our collection. One of these pieces was Les Femmes du Maroc: La Sultan, by artist Lalla Essaydi. This image was highlighted in our recent exhibition Gesture of the Still Image, a selection of photographs from collections chosen for their portrayal of the human body in a moment of movement and/or emotion stilled by the artist.
The addition of photographs by artists Lissa Rivera and Lalla Essaydi expanded the ratio of female-identifying to male-identifying artists both in the Gesture of a Still Image exhibition and Kennedy Museum of Art collections.
Essaydi works with the complexities of Arab female identity specifically in relation to Orientalism, a form of art in which European “male artists relied largely on hearsay and imagination [to depict] female slaves or concubines (many with Western features), reclining in the nude or in Oriental dress” (https://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/euor/hd_euor.htm). Essaydi specifically appropriates the poses and staging from these paintings to address the misrepresentation and hyper-sexualization of Muslim women. This is evident in the visual comparison of Les Femmes du Maroc: La Sultan and Gustave Corbet’s Woman with a Parrot, 1866 (see below). Pedrag Pandiloski, a staff writer for the Brown Political Review, states “Essaydi responds to these overtly sexual paintings by bringing back agency to the women, both in the way they are depicted and in the words [that] they are carrying on their faces. The contrast of the parrot in Courbet’s painting with the white dove in Essaydi’s photograph also has a strong message – while the former has strong exotic connotations the latter can be seen as women’s cry for peace in the Muslim countries in North Africa and the Middle East” (https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/05/les-femmes-du-maroc-lalla-essaydis-feminist-response-to-colonial-art/).
Essaydi specifically stages all aspects of her photographs, the poses, the locations, the garments (which she makes), and the intricate Arabic calligraphy on the faces of the women she depicts. The calligraphy she includes is written on the visible body parts of her subjects using henna, a paste made from a natural dye used “during spiritual, social, and religious occasions” traditionally celebrated in countries residing in the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia with the “intent of bringing good fortune and joy” (https://www.moroccoworldnews.com/2021/01/332084/henna-history-uses-benefits-symbolic-importance). With her inclusions of historically significant practices in the East, Islamic calligraphy, and the female figure, Essaydi means to draw attention to “the complex reality of the lives of Arab women through their personal experience” (https://brownpoliticalreview.org/2015/05/les-femmes-du-maroc-lalla-essaydis-feminist-response-to-colonial-art/).
“In my art,” Essaydi explains, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes” (https://www.houkgallery.com/artists/38-lalla-essaydi/).
Lalla Essaydi was born in 1956 in Morocco. She currently lives in New York and received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/TUFTS University in May 2003. The Edwynn Houk Gallery, one of the galleries that currently represents the artist, relayed that “her most recent series Bullets (2009-14) introduces a new material for the artist, silver and gold bullet casings, which she has woven to create glittering gowns of armor” (https://www.houkgallery.com/artists/38-lalla-essaydi/).
Portrait of the Artist, Lalla Essaydi, with “Converging Territories #10,” Lajos Geenen, 2009, digital photograph, https://sites.lib.jmu.edu/lallaessaydi/the-artist/
If you would like to see Lalla Essaydi’s work in person, Les Femmes du Maroc: La Sultan will be on display in our Visual Literacy Gallery beginning August 2023.
To see more of Essaydi’s work or learn more about the artist, visit http://lallaessaydi.com/3.html.
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