Lalla Essaydi - Artists - Edwynn Houk Gallery

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Elements of tradition and femininity grace Lalla Essaydi’s photographs. These images, while elegant and ethereal, are also brutally honest in their revelation of the artist’s personal history, intimate self, and cultural mores. This exhibition features selections from the artist’s best known work—the photographic series Converging Territories and Les Femmes du Maroc—which have won her international acclaim.

“Ultimately I wish for my work to be as vividly present and yet as elusive as ‘woman’ herself,” Essaydi has said.

Lalla Essaydi | Photography Artist | Jackson Fine Art

While the photographs provide a space for Essaydi to voice her own reflections, they are not uniquely personal; they also represent a narrative shared by women with similar understandings of Islamic heritage, cultural mobility, and gender identity. Indeed, Essaydi considers this work a collaborative endeavor undertaken with the Moroccan women who pose for her photographs. The images are captured after hours of preparation. As the models and backdrops are painted with henna, the artist and her collaborators engage in a lively exchange, recounting memories and experiences of being women of Moroccan heritage. The images, then, depict women in repose, caught in moments of quietude, rather than immutably silenced. Essaydi’s photographs reverberate with their conversations, past and present.

Essaydi (born 1956) is a Moroccan-born photographer known for her staged photographs of Arab women

Essaydi’s distinctive artistic process is indebted to Moroccan wedding customs, which include adorning women’s bodies during the Night of the Henna, an elaborate celebration that is a prelude to the wedding itself. On the eve of her marriage, the bride and her female friends and family members come together to apply henna to her hands and feet in intricate designs. In the Apparel still–lifephotographs of the Converging Territories series, instead of ornamenting women’s bodies and skin, Essaydi writes upon objects that are customary wedding gifts, such as flowers, eggs, and sugar. In the context of Essaydi’s larger body of work, in which women’s bodies are so inscribed, the gifts associated with the bride invoke her presence.

Lalla Essaydi - 54 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy

Lalla Essaydi | Professional Profile

Returning to her home country and childhood, Essaydi photographed Moroccan women and girls in this family house. In the act of taking it over, she literally redressed it through careful staging. She reversed the connotation of these spaces, transforming them into a place where women are seen, not hidden. Especially when Essaydi’s work is understood as a collaboration between the artist and her models, this site becomes a place of intimate dialogue and expression, where voices are unleashed rather than muted.

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The ambiguous space of the photographs resonates with Essaydi’s personal experience and, perhaps, her frame of mind. Relocating multiple times during her lifetime has required multiple reinventions of self, particularly when cultures are crossed, children are raised, and time has passed. The space the artist occupies, then, is ill defined, located between cultures, traditions, and histories. These works, abstracted from a definitive place, conjure the distance between the artist and her homeland.

Essaydi harem - Garage Door Remotes | Gate Openers

Essaydi’s photographic work challenges conventions of space in multiple ways. This is clearly the case with respect to Islamic cultures in which religion has historically dictated spatial boundaries for men and women. The presence of men defines public venues, streets, and meeting places, while women have customarily been confined to private spaces, though this is increasingly contested by women throughout the Muslim world. The artist also challenges the expectations of viewers, who rely on the clear juxtaposition of positive and negative space and on depth of field as primary points of orientation. This is seldom possible in Essaydi’s photographs in which spatial relationships are obscured by script. Instead, the writing serves as the defining element of the composition, constituting the foreground, background, and subject. The artist removes all allusions to clearly recognizable architectural elements, and substitutes her signature use of henna–inscribed cloth. What remains is, quite simply, space. In Essaydi’s work, it is rarely defined except by the presence of the women who inhabit it. She lures viewers in and, once they are engaged, compels them to make sense of the scene.

Lalla Essaydi's Harem Photography - Trendland

The serenity and elegance of these photographs belie their subversive nature. Essaydi transgresses gender stereotypes by using calligraphy, a sacred Islamic art form traditionally reserved for men. Even more, she expresses herself through calligraphic script, rather than writing in the service and spirit of the Qur’an, the Muslim holy book, as convention dictates. Subjecting text and content to her will, the artist employs writing as a delicate act of defiance against a culture in which women have been relegated to the private sphere.