Dispels Orientalist Prejudices
Nélida Nassar 05.3.2012
The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (SMFA) presented its 2012 Medal Award to the noteworthy Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, at the Museum of Fine Arts gala celebration. Essaydi shares this honor with a roster of prominent artists such as Alex Katz, Kiki Smith, Claes Oldenburg and Coosje van Bruggen, Ellen Gallagher and Robert Rauschenberg. She works in various mediums: Painting, video, film, installations and analog photography.
Through her personal experience and upbringing, her photography addresses the complex Arab female identity and its representation.
She is concerned with the concept of threshold and the relationship between architectural and psychosocial boundaries in Arab culture. She believes that the public and private space has been determined by women’s sexuality.
Arab women inherently occupy a private space, but, wherever a woman is, when a man enters that space, he transforms it into a public space.
This separation of public and private is testament to the power of women’s sexuality. It also helps explain how Arab women became sexualized under Western gaze. In a sense, what the West did was to dissolve the boundaries between public and private, and – in response – the Arab world reinstated these boundaries in a clear and visible way. Behind the veil, an Arab woman maintains a private place, even in public. I spoke with Lalla at the Museum of Fine Arts gala.
Nelida Nassar: I will start with an obvious question how did you get into art?
Lalla Essaydi: I have been drawing and painting since my childhood. My father was a self-taught artist and I remember spending hours in his studio playing with colors. I will always associate the quality time I had with my father with art.
NN: What is it about the process of art making, especially photography, that you like so much, besides its physicality?
LE: My work is very process-oriented. I believe the time I spend making the work is the defining aspect of being an artist. The process of making generates new perceptions and facilitates personal transformation, which in turn may yield new forms of expression. The arc of the entire process, from start to finish, is very liberating.
NN: You seem to have both an analytical side and artistic one. Can you discuss this with us? LE: I strongly believe that the analytical side and the artistic side are one, or at least should be one. I always do a thorough research before I even start planning the visual vocabulary of the artwork. For me, all mediums are the same as long as they help me express and convey my message to the viewer. I started learning photography as a tool to document my paintings. It became a medium I fell in love with. So painting, photography, installation or film, for me it is just a means to achieve something to create. Writers mostly influence me. Maybe because of my continuous research into feminist art and writing, but it’s mostly writers. For example, Fatema Mernissi, a Moroccan sociologist; Noelle Sayadaw, an Egyptian sociologist; the work of Linda Nochlin, a feminist art historian; and Edward Said, those are the major influences in my work.
NN: You mentioned the work of Mernissi, Sadaway, Nochlin and Said. What are the themes, ideas, and political or social positions in their writings that influence your work? Or what is it that you borrow from them and articulate?
LE: Sometimes, I think that my work is a visual interpretation of the writing of these authors. I am fascinated by their research and I learned a lot about orientalism/colonialism and the role of the “Arab” woman in orientalist tradition from their books.
NN: Do you consider yourself a feminist?
LE: I don’t like labels, but if working with women for women, about women makes me a feminist, then so be it, I am a feminist. But it is much more and I can’t reduce my work to a feminist discourse. Feminism has given me a lens through which to focus the converging territories of my work and through which to see more clearly the influence of the western imagination in the self-conception of the East.
NN: How do you straddle your Arab origin and Western new identity?
LE: As an Arab artist, living in the West, I have been granted an extraordinary perspective from which to observe both cultures, and I have also been imprinted by these cultures. In a sense, I feel I inhabit (and perhaps even embody) a ‘crossroads,’ where the cultures come together – merge, interweave, and, sometimes, clash. As an artist, I inhabit not only a geo-cultural terrain, but also an imaginative one. This space continues to define itself, to unfold and evolve and, as an artist, I feel it is my job (and my passion) to try to understand it and to make work that flows from this continuing investigation.
NN: Having re-appropriated idioms used by Western Orientalist artists (Jean Louis Gérôme, Eugène Delacroix, John Singer Sargent, Fréderic Leighton) to describe Arab women, how is your imagery and message different from theirs?
LE: When I look at Orientalist paintings, I am caught between admiring the beauty of the decorative elements, and being appalled at the portrayal of Arabs –women especially, but also men. Women are, as I have said, represented as passive, sexual slaves or jezebels, and in either case, usually nude. Arab men are seen as weak, swarthy procurers. I do not want simply to expose such distortions but also to provoke the viewer into new ways of seeing. I want the projected space of Orientalism to vie with another space, one that shapes a new understanding. In my photographs, I have removed the nudity that is found in the paintings, and created instead, “real” domestic scenes in which Arab women are engaging the viewer, disrupting the voyeuristic tradition and dictating how they are to be seen. At the same time, the photographs mimic Orientalist painting in composition, even in terms of the placement of the models within the space. My aim is to disrupt the viewer’s programmed response by seeming to cater to, but, in fact, dislocating expectations. I want the viewer to become sensitized to the voyeuristic, sexualized gaze of the Western Orientalist painters, but at the same time be enthralled with the authentic beauty of the culture these artists encountered in North Africa. Everywhere – in architecture, in the decorative surfaces of spaces, on furniture and women’s clothing – they found and recorded a world of exquisite beauty quite in contrast with the drab bourgeois world these men left behind them in Europe.
NN: The West has a hard time being confronted with its own misconceptions and prejudices about faraway places called exotic. Is it your aim to help them become conscious of their misrepresentations?
LE: It is my hope and aim to make them conscious of their misrepresentation. And I am aware that it will require time and a huge effort. And I am willing to do it, even if it means changing one person at a time.
NN: Your photographs straddle and subvert both the outer perimeter – women as objects of desire, calligraphy as the domain of the man – as well as the inner perimeter – the use of henna as exclusive to women. Using male and female figuration and elements, can you please talk about these dichotomies?
LE: 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. To return now to the photographs, where I employ 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 complex Arab culture.
NN: In some of your new photographs one can perceive some Vienna Secession influence, a nod to Gustav Klimt in particular. On closer examination, the background is composed with and of bullets. What are the reasons that prompted this new language in your work?
LE: The project is informed and concerns itself with ways in which the fears generated by terrorism have re-shaped life – East & West – but, especially, in today’s Morocco. As an artist, living both in Morocco and in New York, I have been struck by the contrast in how these societies have responded to the fact of terrorism. Whereas the West seems to have become somewhat desensitized to the threat of terrorism and returned to business as usual, Moroccans seem still caught up in the horror unleashed by 9/11. In today’s Morocco, one finds, increasingly, a newly anti-western, fatalistic, religious mindset, a response no doubt to the sense of being judged by the West as “terrorist,” or somehow complicit with terrorism. There seems to be a growing need to take shelter in a very clearly defined Arab identity, so that one frequently encounters the complete veil, and the beard, neither of which, until recently, was a common sight in this country. Morocco has long prided itself on its ability to assimilate modernity, to embrace progress, without sacrificing its own deeply rooted traditions. These days, I sense uneasiness with this kind of ambiguity. In this project, I wish to make visible the fear and the impulse for self-protection that has provoked this reaction. My goal is to provide a mirror in which people can see themselves, both in fear and in hope.
NN: How is your work perceived in the Arab world versus the West?
LE: It took a little longer for my work to be accepted in the Arab world than it did in the West. The reason is the lack of access to technology in the East, as not as many people use computer research in our part of the world. Also, a lot has been written about my work in West. Now, of course, it is very well received in both worlds. A month ago, I was in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirates, where I have presently an exhibition at the Museum. Last October, I was also invited by the Minister of Culture of Morocco to have a national exhibition that toured 6 city museums. I have had shows in Kuwait, Syria, and in the Spring of 2013, I will have a major exhibition at the Museum of Orientalism in Doha, Qatar. I have a different dialogue with people from the Arab world because I don’t need to explain our culture. So, the dialogue is more about explaining what my work attempts to do. In the West, people are much more curious about my work and I try to use it to show a different world than the sexual fantasy of the western artist.
NN: What have you been looking to communicate in the slide presentation you made for the Museum School of Fine Art (SMFA) on such a quick deadline?
LE: The slide show was a suggestion from the SMFA to display my work to help the Museum School’s student fund raising. As you probably noticed, I donated one of my photographs to help with this effort.
NN: Do you have a piece of art that you keep going to, like going back to nature?
LE: Yes, I do, and it is hanging on my walls so I can live with it and see its influence on my entire body of work. It is a photograph of “The Slave Market” by Jean-Leon Gérôme. I photographed and painted different versions of this painting, as it had such impact on my work. These photographs have led me to a greater understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture. Traditionally, the presence of men has defined public spaces: the streets, the meeting places, and the places of work. Women, on the other hand, have been confined to private spaces, the architecture of the home. Physical thresholds define cultural ones; hidden hierarchies dictate patterns of habitation. Thus crossing a permissible, cultural threshold into prohibited “space” in the metaphorical sense can result in literal confinement in an actual space. Many Arab women today may feel the space of confinement to be a more psychological one, but its origins are, I think, embedded in architecture itself. In my photographs, I am constraining women within space and also confining them to their “proper” place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. The henna painted on their bodies corresponds to the elaborate pattern of the tiles. The women, then, become literal odalisques (odalisque, from the Turkish, means to belong to a place).
But my work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke the Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem. Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists, in other words, as a voyeuristic tradition.
NN: Do you think that it is important to be familiar with the history of art to create?
LE: Not necessarily, but it is important to know what you are working with and what influences and informs your work. History of art can help and guide you in the right direction, in addition to informing you of history of other artists and of how these artists addressed issues they were concern with.
NN: How important you think spiritual issues and practice if any are to your work?
LE: My work is concerned with social and cultural issues, it is not about religion.
NN: What do you think is going to be your next project?
LE: Well, I never seem to have a next project since I never stop working and I always think of my work as a continuum that grows and evolves as time changes and I change. I have been working on my next project these past 16 months already, and I am ready for the final phase, shooting the photographs.
NN: Benjamin Genocchio described your work as: “Too often her photographs look like an exercise in voyeurism, replicating rather than revising the stereotypical imagery she is working with.” What is your position vis à vis such a critique?
LE: It is unfortunate, but I believe he missed the point. Although I am using the same visual vocabulary, the same stereotype to challenge these depictions of the Orientalist painters, I am confusing, complicating, and deconstructing these paintings. One way of doing this is, where one would find a nude woman in the Orientalist painting, I decided to use text and voice. Here, I could complicate the viewer’s response. It is my hope that this strategy will make viewers aware of their expectations – i.e, of a certain sexual content – by confusing these expectations. The result will be to throw viewers back on themselves, so that they begin to see the dynamics of the Orientalist gaze. It is one way of destabilizing conventional expectations.
NN: Can you share with me the calligraphy text you use in henna on your photographs? Are they texts you write, excerpts from authors and thinkers you admire? Or, are they just a decorative form not unlike the Surrealists’ ecriture automatique?
LE: The calligraphy has meaning and here are some excerpts: “I am writing. I am writing on me, I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began. I am asking, how can I be simultaneously inside and outside? I didn’t even know this world existed, I thought it existed only in my head, in my dreams….” “I am dreaming about freedom and don’t know how to talk about it. I am staring at the book and not sure what language I am supposed to speak. When a book is translated, it loses something in the process and what am I but generations of translations? I stand guilty outside and I stand guilty inside, profoundly buried in my translation, panting behind the words that are carried along by vital forces far greater than my own. I am a book that has no ending. Each page I write could be the first.”
Lalla leaves me after answering graciously all my questions with a big smile but I can already see in her gaze that she is dreaming of joining back her odalisques and various women to continue giving them – and through them, give herself – a robust voice.
Originally Published in Berkshire Fine Arts