Lalla Essaydi is a Moroccan artist resident in the US. Her photographic project ‘Beyond Beauty,’ documents actual space in an attempt to find her own artistic voice, and in doing so, represents Arab women within the context of Islam. To understand her femininity, she needed to travel back to Morocco, to explore her culture and the deteriorating spaces from her childhood. Her photography documents space: actual and metaphorical, remembered and constructed before they are lost forever.
Consequently, Lalla became more understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture. Traditionally the presence of men defined public spaces. Women however, have been confined to private spaces — the architecture of the home. Physical thresholds define cultural ones, so crossing a permissible threshold into a prohibited space in the metaphorical sense, can result in literal confinement in an actual space. Lalla explains that many Arab women today feel the space of confinement to be psychological, but she feels the origins are actually embedded in Islamic architecture. In her photography, she considers women within space and also confines them to their “proper” place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men.
The women’s bodies are painted on with henna in Islamic calligraphy. This ‘hybridisation’ of art and language corresponds to the elaborate patterns of the tiles that surround them. The women then, become literal odalisque’s (odalisque, from the Turkish, means to belong to a place). Lalla’s work does not merely represent women and space, her visual language is far more complex and profound then that. Her photography of the women is an attempt to evoke the Western fascination with the odalisque, the veil, and not least, the harem. The Arab female body is the central gaze employed to disrupt the tradition of Oriental voyeurism in Western painting. The viewer is invited to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists, and reconsider the Orientalist Mythology.
“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes” — Lalla Essaydi.
She stresses her work is not a critique of culture, Arab or Western; although she gives an interesting and plausible analogy of the collective Arab psychology towards the Oriental lens. The distorted lens has filtered down through Arab culture creating further restrictions. In particular, the rules towards Arab women imposed on them by the men as a result of Western influence. She explains that 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 honour and the family. Consequently, Arab men feel the need to become more protective of Arab women from being targets of sexual fantasy by veiling them.
The employed use of henna then, has multiple functions in her work. By incorporating calligraphic writing, she practices the sacred Islamic art that is usually inaccessible to women. Henna is a female art, an adornment worn and applied only by women. To apply calligraphic henna adds a further subversive twist, the henna can be seen as both a veil of decoration and concealment; intended to enhance the images with the integrated expression of calligraphy.
“Ultimately, I wish for my work to be as vividly present and yet as elusive as “woman” herself — not simply because she is veiled or turns away — but because she is still in progress.” — Lalla Essaydi.