Lalla Essaydi: New Beauty

Review

Lalla Essaydi: New Beauty

By Danica Willard Sachs February 24, 2014

Lalla Essaydi’s highly staged tableaux employ the domestic spaces of her native Morocco to challenge the Orientalist imaging of Arab women. New Beauty at Jenkins Johnson Gallery brings together sixteen photographs from the artist’s two most recent series, Harem Revisited and Bullets Revisited, which expand her investigation of the harem as an architectural and social structure of confinement for women in Islamic culture.

Lalla Essaydi. Bullets Revisited #22, 2013; chromogenic print; 60 x 48 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

Essaydi’s large-format chromogenic prints, all shot in the isolated space of the harem in palaces and homes around Marrakech, are visually alluring. The pictured women glint with gold clothing and jewelry made from bullet casings, or are swathed in intricately adorned fabrics in saturated hues. For the models’ poses and groupings, the artist references an art-historical lineage that includes 19th-century painters Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, Jean-Léon Gérôme, and Eugène Delacroix, twisting familiar imagery into disconcerting scenes.

In Harem 53B (2013), Essaydi’s subject poses in the center of the frame, with only her face and one hand emerging from decorative clothing that matches the textiles of the background. (Borrowed from a private collection, all of the textiles in Harem Revisited were made between the 17th and early 20th centuries and intended not as clothing, but to decorate palaces and harems for weddings.) As in some earlier series, in Harem Revisited Essaydi uses henna to inscribe the exposed hands and faces of her models with Islamic calligraphy, some of which is text drawn from her own journals. Traditionally, only men are allowed to practice what is considered one of the highest forms of Islamic art; Essaydi’s use of calligraphy, rendered in the feminine form of henna, therefore amounts to an act of rebellion.1 Despite this, the effect of the ceremonial fabrics and calligraphy is to flatten the women into almost abstract images that retreat into the background like furniture.

Bullets #5 (2009) employs a similar visual language, but with a more sinister tone. Disappearing into a divan both printed and embroidered with Islamic text, the model is also covered from head to foot in calligraphy, from the hennaed inscriptions on her face and arms to the gauzy fabric of her skirt. Trimming the model’s top are decorative “coins” that are in fact bullet casings. For the Bullets series, Essaydi uses a labor-intensive process to weave her own fabrics from discarded casings. The resulting garments are enormously heavy, literally weighing down the bodies of Essaydi’s models with the physical remnants of gunfire.

Lalla Essaydi. Bullets #5, 2009; chromogenic print; 48 x 60 in. Courtesy of the Artist and Jenkins Johnson Gallery, San Francisco.

When all sixteen works are viewed together, the photographs lack variation, making for an aesthetically and thematically repetitive exhibition. This sameness contrasts with Essaydi’s stated aim: to suggest the complexity of Arab female identity.2 As experienced in this exhibition, Essaydi’s women are still confined: by the weight of history and religion, and by the lasting impact of war.

Lalla Essaydi: New Beauty is on view at Jenkins Johnson Gallery, in San Francisco, through March 29, 2014.

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