By Sophie Dowle.
Lalla Essaydi is an influential Moroccan-American artist, whose uncompromising portrayals of women have sent waves across the art world. Bold, brave and unafraid to make frank and honest statements regarding gender and the Middle East, Essaydi challenges the tropes of Orientalism head-on in her work. When I spoke to her, her passion and clarity of perception was clear. She is enthusiastic in her mission to add balance and depth to the discourse surrounding women in the Arab world.
You’ve been creating art focused around women in the Middle East, their role and their portrayal, for many years now. Have you seen a change in how they are perceived and portrayed?
There has definitely been a change in the world in general, and especially in Morocco and other Arab countries, perhaps due to the Middle East and North Africa becoming better connected with Europe and America. I believe this is happening now because of global modernization, technology and social media.
Undoubtedly, for me, as a woman from the Maghreb, the most problematic of the portrayals are the projections of the Orientalist gaze, which profoundly skews not only how the West perceives us but our own ability to see ourselves. Much of my work draws directly on the Orientalist tradition in Western painting, but complicates the viewer’s encounter with its voyeuristic strategies – not ultimately to criticize either the West or the East, but to make new kinds of seeing and understanding possible.
Through echoing and appropriating the imagery of Orientalist artists such as Delacroix you challenge and subvert Orientalist representations of women in the Middle East. How have these orientalist and “voyeuristic” depictions of women, from as long ago as 1830 and even before, had an effect on Western and Middle Eastern perceptions of women both in art and in society as a whole?
The 19th-century European vision of the East, as a set of assumptions, lives on today.In its early form Orientalism was a literal “vision,” finding expression in the work of Western painters who travelled to the “exotic” East in search of cultures more colourful than their own; I have used that as a point of departure in much of my own work.
The Orientalist perspective has unquestionably had an impact on the lives of men and women in the Arab world. The rules for Arab women became much stricter as a result of Western influence. When the West portrays Middle Eastern women as sexual victims and Middle Eastern men as depraved, the effect is to emasculate Arab men, and to challenge the traditional values of honour and family. So Arab men feel the need to 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.
Women blend into the background patterns and also stand out from them in much of your work. How and why is this significant to your commentary on the portrayal of women in the Arab World?
I am interested in exploring the thin line between two associations: harem as woman (or women), and harem as space. But I am also playing with the tropes of the Orientalist tradition: the veil, the odalisque, and the decorative spaces that frame the women in the Western Orientalist dream. The women in the photographs embody, but also confront, the complexities of both Eastern and Western traditions. The women dissolve into the space. Covered as she is with the decorative patterns of the space in which she lounges, she appears as a controlled commodity; the ultimate decoration in her master’s treasured palace, the jewel in his crown. Yet they engage the viewers, almost mockingly. She seems aware of how her culture views her, and stares in sly defiance out from her culturally designated place. She is also aware of her designated place in the Western Orientalist tradition. Her knowing gaze places her out of reach. Viewers can only admire; they cannot touch or possess her. She confronts them with their own cultural assumptions, which she seems to defy from within the very space in which they attempt to define her.
In your projects Bullet and Bullet Revisited, you consider violence, beauty and women protecting themselves from men. How do these collections challenge stereotypes and give a new complexity to our understanding of women in the Arab world?
My latest project portrays both the invasive role of violence and the threat of violence. Like my previous work, it addresses the polarization between East and West and the ways in which we in the East have allowed the Western gaze to imprint itself on our view of ourselves. This new work, however, situates itself explicitly in an Arab Spring world. The Arab Spring gave many groups the courage to come out in public and demand with strength what they believe is right. Despite playing a major role in the Arab Spring, women today are experiencing tyranny to varying degrees all over the Arab world. This gender apartheid that we see is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women. It is about barring them from political activities and preventing their active participation in the public sector.
Islamic calligraphy plays an important role in your work. Why did you choose to use calligraphy and text in your artwork?
The text in my work functions as a feminist strategy, laying claim to the voices of marginalized women. It also serves to suggest that women’s bodies are constantly overwritten by the discourses of Others.
My intention is to use the text to empower women and give them a voice, but simultaneously the women become paragraphs, pages and chapters since these projects were originally conceived of as books. However, Arab women today are facing difficulties and Orientalist attitudes from Arab and Western societies alike: they are either weak and in need of rescuing, or jezebels that need to be brought under control.
Who and what are your influences; in particular, which women have influenced both yourself and your art?
I have many artists I admire, but I am mostly inspired by writers such as the Moroccan sociologist Fatima Mernissi and the Egyptian activist and psychiatrist Nawal Saadawi, to name two. They helped me to understand my own preoccupation with identity and space as an artist and as an Arab woman.