blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsFall 2010  Vol. 9  No. 2
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Curators’ Commentary by Ashley Kistler and Carol Ann Lorenz
Lalla Essaydi’s photographs were exhibited at VCU’s Anderson Gallery May 28–August 1, 2010

The Longyear Museum of Anthropology at Colgate University and the Anderson Gallery of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University are pleased to present recent work by the Moroccan-born, New York-based artist Lalla Essaydi. The Longyear Museum is a cultural museum, while the Anderson Gallery is an art museum; global art like the work of Essaydi finds a comfortable fit in both institutions.

Over a relatively short period of time, Essaydi has received international attention for her stunning large-scale photographs of tableaux enacted by Moroccan women. In these images, she probes a complex reality from the vantage point of personal experience, putting her own subversive spin on certain cultural and artistic traditions that have controlled the status and perception of Arab women in both the West and the Middle East.

Essaydi acknowledges, and turns to her own devices, the power of writing in the Muslim world. Despite the traditional restriction of Arabic calligraphy to male practitioners, she inscribes every element in her photographs—women, clothing, furnishings—with elegant North African maghribi calligraphy. Furthermore, she uses henna, a bodily embellishment worn and applied only by women to mark life’s most important transitions, including puberty, marriage, and the birth of a first child. Essaydi thus “makes a significant and highly original contribution to écriture féminine . . . .”[1]

1  Trinita Kennedy, Indelible: The Photographs of Lalla Essaydi (exhibition brochure, Nashville: Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2008).

“Female writing” is a concept promulgated by the French-Algerian writer Hélène Cixous (b. 1937), author of The Laugh of the Medusa (1975), who urged women to speak up and speak out. Essaydi expresses herself both visually and verbally in her narrative photographs, which are both carefully staged and covered with texts from her personal diaries and poems that consider what it means to be an Arab feminist in the 21st century. Even if Essaydi’s text is indecipherable to most viewers, it imparts the visual impression of a breathless, ruminating voice that can be comprehended in the many subtleties of her photographs, and in the demeanor and interactions of the women who inhabit them.

Essaydi’s writings are often inspired by conversations with her subjects. The artist explains that using the “women’s own language” in the photographs of the Converging Territories and Les Femmes du Maroc series “renders the photographs ‘a book where the women become chapters and pages, the text on their bodies and clothes [being] my and these women’s stories.’”[2] Essaydi translates an inscription in one photograph: “I am writing. I am writing on me, I am writing on her . . .  And now here I am, an open book.”[3 ]

2  Lalla Essaydi, personal communication by email to Emilio Spadola, 2/25/2010. Quoted in Emilio Spadola, “Inscriptions: Les Femmes du Maroc by Visual Artist Lalla Essaydi,” Middle East Section, Anthropology News 51, May 5, 2010, p. 45.

3  Lalla Essaydi, unpublished translation sent by email to Emilio Spadola, 2/25/2010.

Essaydi’s art-making embodies a rigorous process of self-determination that she employs as a means of renegotiating identity. “In my art,” she notes, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”[4]

4  “Crossroads: Lalla Essaydi,” London: Waterhouse & Dodd Contemporary.

We are deeply grateful to Lalla Essaydi for this opportunity to introduce her work to audiences in our respective regions, to Julie Castellano and her staff at Edwynn Houk Gallery for their kind assistance, and to Kinsey Katchka, associate curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, for her insightful essay.  end

Ashley Kistler is Director of the VCU School of the Arts Anderson Gallery

Carol Ann Lorenz is Director and Curator of Exhibitions at Colgate University’s Longyear Museum of Anthropology

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