Moroccan-born, New York-based photographer Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956) explores issues surrounding the role of women in Arab culture and their representation in the western European artistic tradition. Her large-scale photographs are based on nineteenth-century Orientalist paintings but work to subvert those stereotyped and sexualized representations. Aside from their timely and provocative subject matter, Essaydi’s photographs are technically impressive. Behind each of her images is weeks of preparation, as the text is composed, the fabrics are dyed to match the setting in which they will appear, and the architectural backdrops are carefully constructed. The entire field of the almost life-size photographs appears in sharp focus, the result of her use of a large-format camera and traditional film.
Essaydi's art addresses the complex reality of Arab female identity from the unique perspective of personal experience. In much of her work, she returns to her Moroccan girlhood, looking back on it as an adult woman caught somewhere between past and present, and as an artist, exploring the language in which to “speak” from this uncertain space. With a method she began in 2003, Essaydi covers her models, and sometimes their garmets and walls, in layers of hand-painted henna calligraphy, subverting traditional Muslim gender stereotypes through the presence of the written word. The sacred Islamic art form of calligraphy, traditionally reserved exclusively for men, is employed by Essaydi as a small act of defiance against a culture in which women are relegated to the private sphere. Furthermore, by creating this calligraphy with henna, an art traditionally employed by women for women, Essaydi fully reclaims the female voice. Her paintings often appropriate Orientalist imagery from the Western painting tradition, thereby inviting viewers to reconsider the Orientalist mythology. She has worked in numerous media, including painting, video, film, installation, and analog photography. The performative process and the resulting photographs allow Essaydi to traverse boundaries between East and West, male and female, past and present.
Essaydi received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/TUFTS University in May 2003. Essaydi was recently featured in the exhibition Contemporary Muslim Fashions at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, which is now showing in Frankfurt’s Museum Angewandte Kunst. She recently showed in the solo show Lalla Essaydi: From “Converging Territories” to “Harlem Revisited” at the Newport Art Museum in Rhode Island. Her works are in the permanent collections of major institutions including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian African Museum of Art, the Louvre, and the National Gallery of Art. She has been featured by the The New Yorker, Huffington Post, the New York Times, Artnet, Newsweek, Photo District News, and the Washington Post. Essaydi currently lives in Boston and Marrakesh.