art review: Lalla Essaydi’s Les Femmes du Maroc

February 8, 2010

I recently visited the Jane Zimmerli Museum in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I had heard about it from friends, but hadn’t gotten the opportunity to visit until I attended an open house at Rutgers University. There were two really excellent exhibits on display that I want to share with you. I have decided to split the exhibits into two separate blog entries because I have so much to say about them. So look forward to a second Zimmerli Museum post in the near future, but for now, let me focus on the current rotating exhibit. This show was particularly appealing to me because it is related to a major paper I wrote during my Master’s program in Toronto. I researched contemporary female painters in Post-Colonial (independent) Morocco. In particular, I focused on one artist named Chaïbia Tallal who was never professionally trained but established herself as a major contemporary artist in Morocco until her death in 2004. Anyway, I digress.

The Zimmerli’s featured show is by another contemporary Moroccan artist, photographer Lalla Essaydi. Her show, Les Femmes du Maroc, is a collection of large photographs of Moroccan women, draped in white Islamic dress and seated in all white backdrops. Essaydi inscribed the women’s skin, clothing, and the backdrop in henna with Arabic script. Each line of text, while mostly unreadable, is a line from Essaydi’s personal diary. The groupings of women and their accomapnying backdrops are all re-appropriations of 19th century European Orientalist painting. For example, one photo is posed like Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingre’s Grand Odalisque.

Some of the photos, like this one, were displayed with a small copy of the Orientalist original nearby on the wall to help visitors make the connection. The idea behind Essaydi’s photos is to strip the original Orientalist images of their misogynistic and Euro-centric perspective. Orientalist paintings were often used to exoticize the Middle East, and particularly parts of North Africa which had established European colonies. Ostensibly these images offered Europeans, who had never and would never travel to the Orient, an idea of the mysterious new Islamic world. However, their perspective was skewed, equating harems to brothels, perpetuating ideas of savage peoples, and subjugating women to fulfill Western male fantasies. Or at least, that’s my take on it. And that seems to be Essaydi’s view as well. She has taken these Orientalist images back, redistributing the balance of power. While the Orientalist originals often included men and scantily clad women, Essaydi’s photographs are strikingly absent of men. The women, all fully-clothed, stare with moderately to openly hostile expressions, challenging the viewer to make them into sexual objects. The very title of the show, Les Femmes du Maroc, is a re-appropriation of Eugène Délacroix’s Women of Algiers, substituting Morocco for Algeria. The images forcibly take the power back from the male and European perspectives, providing a more honest image of what it is to be a woman in the Islamic world.

Lalla Essaydi

I found Essaydi’s photos completely captivating. I am not sure I totally approve of the Zimmerli’s incorporation of the Orientalist originals (it sometimes took attention away from the photos), but for all I know, Essaydi herself chose to include them. One thing I really did enjoy was a small, slightly separated room which housed a collection of Orientalist prints from the Zimmerli collection and several books on Essaydi and Orientalism. I found the room’s separation from the rest of the exhibit appealing because it allowed visitors to experience Essaydi’s work without the shadow of Orientalism hanging over it. It provided a comparison of the male 19th century vision with the female 21st century vision without detracting from the photos. Which I found completely appropriate.

I think perhaps I have gotten art historically technical enough for one day, so I leave you with one last image from the show (my favorite!) and lots to think about. Let me know if you have seen the show or have anything to add about Orientalism!

Related Posts with Thumbnails
Stacy February 9, 2010 at 10:10 AM

Thank you for covering our exhibition. May we post a link to this article on our Facebook page?

Erin February 9, 2010 at 11:35 AM

You’re very welcome! I had a wonderful visit and would be happy if you linked your Facebook to my blog.

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: