by Akshita Nanda
SINGAPORE - Morocco-born artist Lalla Essaydi subverts the Western male gaze in her striking photographs of contemporary Arab women, who are swathed in lush fabric and often covered with text in henna. Her photos, some of which are on display at Sundaram Tagore Gallery at Gillman Barracks until Dec 15, can take up to a year or more to stage.
Each of the 20-odd large-scale images showcased here is inspired by historical Orientalist paintings, in which Western artists who had travelled to the East in the 18th and 19th centuries claimed to depict life as they had seen it, especially scenes from the harem.
Orientalist paintings cast women as objects to titillate male voyeurs. The paintings often depict the women nude, in lavish harems.
The photographs taken by 62-year-old Essaydi emphasise female agency and power. All her models are chosen from family - cousins and nieces - or close friends in the United States, where she is based now.
The models are clothed to divert the voyeuristic gaze, and sometimes presented in fabrics that allow them to blend into the historical locations where the images are shot.
At the same time, meaningless text is inscribed in henna on their bodies to highlight how women's voices are often overwritten in present and historical discourse.
"Western viewers often see Arab women as oppressed and marginalised, but in the arts as well as in many other areas, women were significant participants," Essaydi says.
The models have an equal say in the final shoot and if they are not on board with Essaydi's ideas, she will not press them. "I wouldn't be able to do this work if they're not into it. It's really a collaboration," she says.
Growing up in Morocco, she saw women going to school and working, though the women of her family took generations to achieve similar freedom.
Essaydi was one of 11 children born into a conservative Muslim household. Her mother and aunts covered their faces with veils; a female-only space was maintained in the household.
"As with all women, Arab female identity is complex and fluid and, of course, individual," she says. "There are many difficulties living in a culture with long traditions and hierarchical structures. But Arab women also live with a tremendous amount of determination and creativity, to say nothing of the humour at life's absurdities which is characteristic of all cultures."
Essaydi's interest in the arts was sparked by her father, a self-taught artist. Laughing, she says that drawing and playing with colour gave her an edge over her 10 siblings when it came to spending quality time with him.
Morocco became independent from French rule in 1956 and in line with a move to distance the country from its colonial past, schools began to phase out French, the language she knew, in favour of Arabic. As a result, Essaydi continued high school in Paris at her mother's insistence.
She married a civil servant, had two children, and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. After her daughter and son were grown, she studied arts at L'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and later at Tufts University in Massachussetts.
She was fascinated by Orientalist art, though she knew the paintings of odalisques reclining nude in harems were male fantasy.
She still admired the lush beauty of the art and created a giant painting in the Orientalist style herself, while working towards her master of fine arts degree at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts. She graduated in 2003.
A curator was intrigued by the painting but Essaydi was shocked to find that this curator thought such Orientalist images depicted reality.
"If somebody who specialises in art thinks this way, what does the mainstream think about it?" she asked herself. This led her to recast and recreate Orientalist paintings through her work, striving to change perceptions about Arab women.
"Arab women today are facing difficulties and Orientalist attitudes from Arab and Western societies alike," she says. "They are seen as either weak and in need of rescuing or as Jezebels that need to be brought under control.
"In either case, they remain defined by their sexuality, threatening to men but appealing to Western fantasies. My photographs seek to portray Arab women as powerful presences in their own right."