Lalla Essaydi is an artist who grew up in Morocco. Her work is about the confluence of arabic calligraphy, culturally and historically done by men usually in the transcription of the Qu’ran, and of henna painting traditionally done by women to celebrate marriage and other sacred days within a female context. As both an installation artist, painter, and photographer, Essaydi has mined the rich intersection and tension between male and female, the profane and the sacred, silence and text, east and west. The spaces in these photographs are completely and utterly covered in arabic script, from the walls to the clothes the subjects wear to the surface of their bodies. The script itself is taken from Essaydi’s journals. In one image the words read, “I am writing. I am writing on me, I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began. I am asking, how can I be simultaneously inside and out?” Every inch of the space is covered, vitalizing yet homogenizing and culturally stamping the space. In her latest photographs, the script has become more obscured, its size changing and fluid size, more loosely rendered, and layered, more difficult to decipher and distinguish.
In her artist’s statement Essaydi states, “The traditions of Islam exist within spatial boundaries. The presence of men defines public space, the streets, the meeting places. Women are confined to private spaces, the architecture of the homes. In these photographs, I am constraining women within space, confining them to their ‘proper’ place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. Their confinement is a decorative one…The house in the photographs is a large, unoccupied house belonging to my extended family. When a young woman disobeyed, stepped outside the permissible space, she was sent to this house. Accompanied by servants, but spoken to by no one, she would spend a month alone. In this silence, women can only be confined visions of femininity. In photographing women inscribed with henna, I emphasize their decorative role, but subvert the silence of confinement. These women ‘speak’ visually to the house and to each other…the calligraphic writing, a sacred Islamic art form, inaccessible to women, constitutes an act of rebellion. Applying such writing in henna, a form of adornment considered ‘women’s work,’ further underscores the subversiveness of the act. In this way, the calligraphy in the images is one of a number of visual signs that carry a double meaning…There is the very different space I inhabit in the West, a space of independence and mobility…When I look at these spaces now, I see two cultures that have shaped me and that are distorted when looked at through the ‘Orientalist’ lens of the West. Thus the text in these images is partly autobiographical. In it, I speak of my thoughts and experiences directly, both as a woman caught somewhere between past and present, as well as between ‘East’ and ‘West,’ and also as an artist, exploring the language in which to ‘speak’ from this uncertain space.”
In her Les Femmes du Maroc series, Essaydi has based her photos on icons of western art that have created images of arabic women as erotic and languid objects aware of being gazed on by men and the colonial powers they represent.
Though still confined, real women inhabit this evocative space, no longer over-erotocized and sexualized. The women here are engaged in relationship with the text as their voice and protest against the silence of isolation and the strict calculus of gender.
Here is a pdf of her exhibition at the DeCordova Museum early this year.