Looking beyond beauty

An interview with the artist Lalla Essaydi who seeks to challenge Orientalist mythology in her work.

Photo: Lalla Essaydi.

The Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi comes across as a self-assured woman. In appearance and manner, she is refined and elegant, but the self-assuredness manifests most poignantly in the thoughtful and strikingly articulate way she describes her life, her art, and their intersection. A friend introduced me to her work earlier this year. I was moved by the sheer beauty of her photographs; then quickly entranced by the thought-provoking detail and delicate nuance embodied within each one. Essaydi’s work is at its core autobiographical, however it seeks to challenge Orientalist mythology, often doing so by “appropriating Orientalist imagery from the Western painting tradition.”

The story behind her introduction to Orientalist art and the journey that led to her present work is an interesting one that begins, perhaps surprisingly, with an appreciation of the genre. “I fell in love with the aesthetic beauty of Orientalist paintings while in Paris many years ago,” Essaydi explained, “Then I started reading about Orientalism. I love the way [the pieces] are painted, they are exquisite, but then I started seeing how they portray the culture.” At this time in her life, she felt these paintings were simply a portrayal of fantasy, as she, a part of one of the cultures being portrayed, knew the images were not representative. “It was the portrayal of a fantasy, and I thought everybody knew that.”

It was an interaction that took place while working toward her MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston that helped bring to light the fallacy of this belief, and set the trajectory of her career. She had created large pieces playing off the work of renowned 19th century French painter Jean-Léon Gérôme, well known for his Orientalist depictions. A curator approached her, curious about the work.

“She wanted to know why I had incorporated Gérôme, why I was making it so huge, presenting it in this way, and so on. I started talking to her about it, telling her that [Gérôme’s portrayal] was a fantasy, and explaining that I was trying to show that by putting the image in a different setting, [I was hoping] to make people realize that if you remove the characteristics of these paintings that make them so beautiful – that [it is the] beauty that allows you to actually look at these women being sold in the streets, accept that, and still look at it as a very beautiful thing.”

As the discussion with the curator progressed, Ms. Essaydi expressed her belief that it was wrong to willfully misrepresent a culture in this way, and depict fantasy as reality. The curator replied: “I had no idea it was a fantasy, I thought it was real.” Not surprisingly, this interaction had a lasting impact on her. “I will never forget that encounter, because it drew a line for me. [I knew] almost instantly that this was my path, so in a way, I thank her.”

This however was just the beginning. “I started my investigation that way but at the same time, I wanted to understand what made [these artists] want to do something like that.” Naturally, this led to more questions; “[I asked myself], what is so different about us as women in our culture? I needed to know more about myself to understand them, and to understand why they created this fantasy world that doesn’t exist, that other people believe exists. Until now, I am still struggling, trying to find an answer, because I don’t think that image is gone.” Ms. Essaydi says she used to find the impact of these false depictions very frustrating. However she soon realized it was partially up to her to make a difference. She realized if she allowed this frustration to consume her, it would be counter-productive. “That’s how things started changing for me,” she said, “I became very patient.”

Her patience is also apparent in the detail and complexity of her work. The preparation behind any single photograph can only be described as a labor of love. Showing me proofs of work she had completed over the summer, an as of yet unreleased extension of her collection “Bullet”, she described the preparation behind an immense cape constructed entirely of bullet casings. That single piece alone took her a year to construct, assembling it in New York, and transporting it with her, piece-by-piece to Morocco. The calligraphy, a consistent theme throughout her work, is also a substantial undertaking, meticulously hand-written on her models, walls, and massive swaths of textile. It is thus understandable that she does not think of her work exclusively as photography. “I don’t work only with one medium, I like to paint, to write, to photograph… and each medium really informs the next. In my mind I always think of myself as a painter, because that’s my formation… and I don’t really think of my photographs as just being photographs… there is so much that goes into it, it is based on many, many things.”

The multi-faceted nature of her work is part of what makes it so compelling. Each component has significance. Her photographs have three thematic foci: the veil, the odalisque, and the harem. She explains that the veils used in her work are metaphors of cultural realities and evolution, but most of all a critique of misrepresentation. “I am talking about when these painters were painting nude women and pretending they were Arabs, how at that time in my culture, and now, it is at a young age [that women] start to cover. How could these men pretend to be going into their homes and painting them nude?” The harem too is symbolic. The way it existed in the mind of the Western artist was artificial. Essaydi explained that in reality the Moroccan harem was a place for the family, a household where women and children would spend time. “It is a family home, where the father and brothers would be, where uncles would come visit, but not men that we don’t know…they took it and turned it into something else completely.”

Space is an important component of Essaydi’s work, whether she is creating a set, or working within existing structures, great thought is put into location. In her earlier work, informed by the initial stages of her self-exploration, she returned to her childhood home. This is where she shot “Converging Territories”, taking a space that had been only for men, and making it a space only for women, covering the walls in script. For her collection “Harem”, she expressed her need for the space to be authentic, and spoke of the time it took for her to find the perfect place. But it is more than the space itself; it is the role of women within these spaces. “This is why in my work… all the women wear the same pattern as the wall, she becomes the harem space, but she is also the harem.”

Beyond the symbolism in her work, Essaydi’s aesthetic is undeniably visually pleasing.  She explained that while her work is received very differently in the West and Arab World, the one aspect that is universally appreciated is the aesthetic. This she finds troubling. “I want people to look past that, because remember what we’re talking about, the beauty in those [Orientalist] paintings… Part of what makes those paintings so powerful is the beauty.” But she insists on staying true to her natural aesthetic. “You can’t run away from that,” she says, “It is you. At the same time beauty is what attracts you to the art in the first place… I want to have a dialogue. If I put it in their faces, they’re going to turn away… it’s very dangerous, I know that, and I hate it when people only like the work because it is decorative.”

As mentioned above, much of Essaydi’s work has been about self-exploration, and autobiographical in nature, but she has chosen to keep it abstract. “There are so many layers to my work, and some of them are just for me. If the viewer does not discover it on their own, I’m not going to talk about it because I have always been told how to behave, what to say, how to see things, how to think, and I don’t want to impose that on the viewers by stating everything. I do what I do for myself, before anything else.”

As our meal winds down she becomes somewhat reflective: “You look at your work, you try to do something and you produce something that people may be very enthusiastic about, but inside me, I know that I haven’t reached what I wanted.” Laughing she adds, “I hope I will not reach it, because the day I reach it, I think I will be done.”

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