Essaydis’s Art Speaks for Itself: “Word Art” on Display in Alumni

When we look at art in galleries, we expect to gaze at a picture of a scene, of people, of nature, or of an imagined vision, and the only separation between the viewer and the artwork is the clear protection placed over the picture. With the images done by the Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, though, an additional barrier confronts the viewer: the writing that covers her photographs. Essaydi, having taught herself the maghribi calligraphy of North Africa, uses it in her photographs, writing over the women, the items and the clothing that are the subjects of her art. By hand, Essaydi writes the calligraphy in henna for each of her works, undoubtedly a time-consuming act.

The calligraphy, typically linked to the printing of the Qu’ran and generally done only by men, expresses Essaydi’s views on being an Arab woman in this century; in “Converging Territories #10” which features herself with her back to the photographer, she writes, “take a person out of her cocoon and watch her quiver in confusion.” She later explains, “I am writing. I am writing on me, I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began.” All of her photos contain poetic lines written beautifully over everything within the image, and she conveys her message through both the words and the pictures.

Lalla Essaydi’s artwork is now on display at the Longyear Museum of Anthropology in Alumni Hall, where it had its opening reception April 5 from 4:30 to 6. The title of this exhibition is “Lalla Essaydi Photographs: L’Ecriture Feminine/Le Corps Feminin.” “L’Ecriture Feminine” translates to women’s writing and is the name of feminist literary theory that emerged in the 1970s in France, and “Le Corps Feminin” translates to the female body or form. Thus, Essaydi’s title represents both the literary aspect and the feminine form that appears in her pieces.

Part of Essaydi’s purpose for creating these artworks is to criticize how the Western world, especially in the 19th century, has featured Arab women in art, usually through stereotypes and relying on the perceived image of them. Essaydi’s writings force Western viewers to do more than quickly scan the photos and see the same clichés they always have; she also aims to create a new visual identity for Arab women through her art. She states that she does not wish to condemn the Western perspective completely or choose the Arab point of view entirely, but rather she seeks to combines both sides for a better understanding and concept of Arab women.

For her photographs, Essaydi has workshops, in which about 20 women will come and she uses them as her subjects, as well as their apparel and accessories. There are a series of photos of Arab women in their traditional dress, each called “Converging Territories” and then numbered, along with numerous “Apparel” pieces.

Essaydi’s photographs not only allow her to express her thoughts, but also grant the women who are her subjects to engage in self-expression and communicate to the viewer. Her photographs convey a message to Westerners as a whole to do more than merely glance at images of Arab women and see a stereotype; her calligraphy causes us to look deeper and try to see through the layer of common perception in order to see the actual women behind the ink and behind the cliché.