In Conversation with Lalla Essaydi

Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque 2
Q: You were born in Morocco but you are living in the US. How much and in which ways do these opposite cultures mark your works? 
A: As an artist now living in the West, I have become aware of another space, besides the house of my girlhood, an interior space, one of "converging territories." I will always carry that house within me, but my current life has added other dimensions. There is the very different space I inhabit in the West, a space of independence and mobility. It is from there that I can return to the landscape of my childhood in Morocco, and consider these spaces with detachment and new understanding. When I look at these spaces now, I see the two cultures that have shaped me and which are distorted when looked at through the "Orientalist" lens of the West.

Q: “The Orient has helped to define the Europe (or the West)” argued E. Said in his seminal work Orientalism[1], What do you think of this quote in regard to your life?
A: As a Moroccan-born artist who lives in New York and Marrakesh as well as traveling frequently in the Arab world, I have become deeply aware of how the cultures of the so-called Orient and Occident view one another. I have become increasingly aware, in particular, of the impact of Western gaze on Arab culture. Edward Said famously described the dominant Western take on Arab culture in his (ground-breaking) book, Orientalism. Although Orientalism most often suggests a 19th-century European vision of the East, as a set of assumptions it lives on today: both in the regard of the West and in the way Arab societies continue to internalize and respond to that regard. Because in its early form Orientalism was a literal “vision,” finding expression in the work of Western painters who traveled to the “exotic” East in search of cultures more colorful than their own, I have used it as a point of departure in much of my own work—painting and photography both. The imagery I found in Orientalist painting has resonated with me in tricky ways and ultimately helped me situate my own experience in a powerful visual language. I thought this complex of ideas we call Orientalism, as reflected in my work and the Western painting that inspired it, might serve to ground my remarks.

Q: It is evident that some of your works are a clear allegory to Orientalism, a feminine reinterpretation and a modern point of view – if only for the medium used – of masterpieces such as Ingres (The big odalisque) and Gerome (The guard of the Harem). Are you trying to reconstruct (and/or change) the past through contemporary image? 
A: Orientalism, as I mentioned at the outset of this inverview, has long been a source of fascination for me. My background in art is in painting, and it is as a painter that I began my investigation into Orientalism. My study led me to a much deeper understanding of the painting space so beautifully addressed by Orientalist painters in thrall to Arab décor. For its terrific prominence in these paintings, this décor made me keenly aware of the importance of interior space in Arab/Islamic culture. And finally of course, I became aware of the patterns of cultural domination and predatory sexual fantasy encoded in Orientalist painting.

Orientalism provide a kind of foil for my own work, which sets out to invoke, interrogate, and complicate the Orientalist tradition. In so doing, I hope to make possible, within the projected space of Orientalist painting, a new space, an openness to a new kind of understanding.
Harem #4b
Q: How did – and how does – in your opinion, Orientalism affect Western perception of Islam and the Arab Culture?
A: Interestingly, it is not only the West that has been prevented from seeing Arab culture accurately. How people in the Arab world see themselves has also been affected by the distorting lens of Orientalism. There’s some evidence that the Orientalist perspective has had an impact on the actual lives of men and women, and especially that the rules for Arab women became much stricter as a result of Western influence. When the West portrays Eastern women as sexual victims and Eastern men as depraved, the effect is to emasculate Eastern men, and to challenge the traditional values of honor and family. So Arab men feel the need to t be even more protective of Arab women, preventing them from becoming targets of fantasy by veiling them. The veil protects them from the gaze of Orientalism. While we’ll probably never know whether the return to the veil and the rules that accompany it is a response to Western influence or merely coincidental, it’s hard to believe there’s no relationship.

But by invoking the Orientalist tradition in a way that makes the viewer aware of its inherent assumptions, I hope not to provoke some kind of “blame game” but rather to liberate viewers – Arab and Western alike – from the grip of these assumptions. Furthermore, I am not a sociologist, I am an artist, working from a particular vantage point, and as such hope to give full expression to a uniqueness that I hope will resonate with the uniqueness of each viewer.
Q: Architectural space is another focus of yours. I believe because in Islamic culture there is a clear distinction between the space dominated by men and the space given to women. The first coincides with the outside and public, while the second is confined within the walls of the house. Why? And in which way do you elaborate this?
A: I want to stress that I do not intend my work simply as a critique of either culture, Arab or Western. I am going further than mere critique to a more active, even subversive, engagement with cultural patterns, in order to get beyond stereotypes and convey my own experience as an Arab woman. In employing calligraphic writing, I am practicing a sacred Islamic art that is usually inaccessible to women. To apply this writing in henna, an adornment worn and applied only by women, adds a further subversive twist. Thus the henna/calligraphy can be seen as both a veil and as an expressive statement. Yet the two are not so much in opposition as interwoven. The “veil” of decoration and concealment has not been rejected but instead has been integrated with the expressive intention of calligraphy. Although it is calligraphy that is usually associated with “meaning” (as opposed to “mere” decoration), in the visual medium of my photographs, the “veil” of henna in fact enhances the expressivity of the images. By the same token, the male art of calligraphy has been brought into a world of female experience from which it has traditionally been excluded. Also, by choosing to use a number of women, I subvert their imposed silence. These women “speak” through the language of femininity to each other and to the house of their confinement, just as my photographs have enabled me to speak. Through these images I am able to suggest the complexity of Arab female identity – as I have known it – and the tension between hierarchy and fluidity at the heart of Arab culture.
Harem #32
Q: The women you depict are conceived as part of their interior world, to which they have always been related, they become the space itself. There is no area between them and the furniture. What you want to denounce is that there is no difference between being a static ‘furniture’ than a woman in this “Arabic” space?
A: This new perspective has led me in my most recent photographs to situate my subjects in a non-specific space, one which no longer identifies itself as a particular house in Morocco, but rather the multivalent space of their/HER own imagination and making. In these images, the text is partly autobiographical. Here 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. But in the absence of any specificity of place, the text itself becomes the world of the subjects – their thoughts, speech, work, clothing, shelter, and nomadic home. This text is of course incomplete. It involves the viewer as well as the writer in a continual process of reading and revising, of losing and finding its multiple and discontinuous threads.

Q: Henna is a very traditional element in the life of Islamic women. It is associated and celebrated with the most crucial stages in their lives: first in the passage between adolescence and womanhood, then, in the marriage, and lastly when they become mothers. You use henna to write in a sumptuous and poetic Arabic calligraphy most of your photography. Why? Is henna a characterization of your "Arab" state?
A: Henna is a crucial element in the life of a Moroccan woman, and is associated with the major celebrations in her life. It is first applied when a girl attains puberty to mark her passage into womanhood. When she is a bride it is thought to enhance her charms for her husband. Finally, it is used to celebrate fertility when she has her first child.

Q: Also calligraphy plays a pivotal role in the making of your art; it is a long process the decoration of the interiors, the fabrics and the models themselves to arrive at the final result. Is the use of calligraphy a way for you to define your citizenship?
A: Calligraphy was inaccessible to me when I was growing up; it wasn’t included in the school curriculum, but it was possible to have private tutors if one wanted to learn it. It has been introduced in Moroccan art schools only recently. I approached calligraphy or to be more precise, my intake on calligraphy as I have no professional training on calligraphical art, I paint text in henna using a syringes. The text is written in an abstract poetical way which becomes universal, could be applied to any one. All my work is autobiographical from a personal perspective.

Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956) is a Moroccan artist now living in the USA. She spent many years in Saudi Arabia and received her MFA in Painting and Photography in 2003 from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/TUFTS University. She has worked in numerous media, including painting, video, film, installation and analog photography. Essaydi’s works have been widely exhibited in many major international locations, including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Texas, Buffalo, Colorado, New York, Syria, Ireland, England, France, the Netherlands, Sharjah, UAE and Japan and is represented in a number of collections, including the Williams College Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Fries Museum in the Netherlands, and the Kodak Museum of Art. She has recently been shown in Hong Kong and at the Edwynn Houk Gallery in New York.

[1] E. Siad, Orientalism (London: Penguin Books Ltd, 1995), p.3-5