Category Archives: Art History

Eastern Beauty and Identity: Lalla Essaydi’s body of work

Edward Said’s book: Orientalism

I was first exposed to Lalla Essaydi  during an art history course on Arab Portraiture with Campus Art Dubai 2.0.   I was particularly intrigued because her art deals with Orientalism and the objectification of Eastern women as “exotic” creatures with little voice.

Sample of French Orientalism: Delacroix’s Women of Algiers

Orientalism in art history is defined as below:

Orientalism” is a way of seeing that imagines, emphasizes, exaggerates and distorts differences of Arab peoples and cultures as compared to that of Europe and the U.S. It often involves seeing Arab culture as exotic, backward, uncivilized, and at times dangerous. Edward W. Said, in his groundbreaking book, Orientalism, defined it as the acceptance in the West of “the basic distinction between East and West as the starting point for elaborate theories, epics, novels, social descriptions, and political accounts concerning the Orient, its people, customs, ‘mind,’ destiny and so on.”

Example of Orientalism on Hyperallergic

Romanticism of any culture tends to be problematic, but this Wikipedia summary beautifully undermines exactly why Orientalism was reflective of the type of patronizing influence the colonial powers had in the Arabian Peninsula.

Since the publication of Edward Said‘s Orientalism in 1978, much academic discourse has begun to use the term “Orientalism” to refer to a general patronizing Western attitude towards Middle Eastern, Asian and North African societies. In Said’s analysis, the West essentializes these societies as static and undeveloped—thereby fabricating a view of Oriental culture that can be studied, depicted, and reproduced. Implicit in this fabrication, writes Said, is the idea that Western society is developed, rational, flexible, and superior

Orientalism objectified all cultures under colonial rule leading to offshoots like arabesque, hindoo style, Chinoiserie, Japonisme and Turquerie. Apart from the fact that the very naming of these movements is offensive at best, it is important (if obvious) to note that they were more reflective of the colonizing powers view of the Orient than the actual Orient itself.

I am particularly interested in the Western depictions of the harems and their perception of eastern beauty.  Demonizing or romanticizing a culture through its sexual practices is one common tool of propaganda.  It’s a theme present in history from the Greeks & Romans, to modern day demonization of sexually permissive or sexually repressive cultures.  In the suffocating, largely strict atmosphere of 19th Century Europe, the idea of the harem was at once attractive and repulsive.  Although having mistresses was a common practice in 19th Century Europe, the illusion of monogamy was upheld by most “gentlemen.”  To such a society the idea that “gentlewomen” could choose to reside in a life of luxury, and share a common partner openly was titillating.

Lalla Essaydi, the artist

However, for Eastern women, then and now, this perception is a huge burden.  In describing the themes of her work, Essaydi states:

But my work reaches beyond Islamic culture to invoke the Western fascination, as expressed in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and, of course, the harem. Here is another way in which my work cannot be read simply as a critique of Arab culture. Images of the harem and the odalisque still penetrate the present and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists––in other words as a voyeuristic tradition

However, Essaydi’s work itself, while echoing that tradition, mimics many of its features. The result, to the uneducated observer, is a rehash of Orientalism that serves to further exacerbate the objectification of Eastern Women and of Arab culture.

Les Femms Du Maroc: Revisited 5 A sample of her current body of work To a casual observer, the Islamic calligraphy and reclining women are reflective of a continuing “commercialized” Arab Identity rather than a real, complex one.

In this respect, I feel like her earlier collections like Harem were more indicative of the themes of Arab female Identity because they were personalized self-portraits that reflected a complex, individual experience and because they were such obvious parody’s of the Orientalist tradition that even a lay-person would find it hard to take seriously as a stand-alone aesthetic piece.

Harem # 5 The continuous pattern and calligraphy show that both the woman and the culture is “painted” and presented for consumption.

While I am unsure whether her work does a good job of starting a dialogue on the perception of Eastern women in Western culture or of the consumption of a flat “commercialized” Eastern culture in the West, I do think it is an important subject to tackle.

It’s also a theme that is particularly important in a world where the commercial ideal beauty is still tall, skinny and white. Eastern women, when depicted are in the role of an “exotic” creature devoid of the complexity of their white counterparts.  And I think that this perception creates huge problems both for Caucasian women and these eroticized “other” women.  To this aspect, Lalla Essaydi’s work is momentous because to some extent or the other, it is a woman describing her experience of her sexuality in a “foreign” culture.





Weekend Art Fix: Omani architecture andCalligraffiti

I’ve just had the opportunity to spend a weekend in Oman, explore Muscat and learn a little about the aesthetic sensibilities of Muscat-dwellers, courtesy a knowledgeable local (an old friend) and  the (very educational) nibbles on Oman Air’s in-flight entertainment system.

Let me start by clarifying that I was in Muscat alone for the entire time I spent in the country. Immediately, I was struck by how closely the aesthetics of the city matched a romantic, Orientalist vision of the Middle East. It’s got all the  aesthetic magic of an Arabian Nights fairytale and the modern sensibilities and comforts of a major metropolis.


We started by exploring the Al Alam Palace grounds in Muscat which was a testament to simple and minimal

, yet grand Ibadi style of architecture. It’s rare to find a contemporary royal palace that maintains the fine balance between grand and tasteful, but Al Alam did not disappoint. The walk up to the palace was highlighted by cool speckled marble and elaborate domes. A unique feature of Omani architecture is an elaborate wooden panel on relatively low-lying, white concrete buildings.

I was fortunate enough to see the construction of the National Gallery opposite the main palace complex. The museum is expected to house the artifacts of Omani culture that lend it its unique identity.

From then on, we explored some of the more modern hotels that have been constructed to cater to tourists. First, the hotels are grand. Any traveler expecting the traditional Arabian hospitality will not be disappointed. We started with the Barr al-Jissah (Shangri-La) that successfully amalgamated the simplicity of the white box-like construction across the city, alongside other, more elaborate, modern interpretations of Islamic geometric Art.

View of the Shangri-La from above
More elaborate interior of the hotel


On a side note, the mountains on the winding drive up to the Resort have some beautiful murals  and other art on them, but be on the lookout for them, or you may miss documenting them like I did.

Art on the roundabout towards the Shangri-La


From there we stopped for brunch at the Chedi , enjoying the view of the black pool and refreshing Gin & Limoncello cocktails.

Main reception area at the Chedi
View from the Lobby Lounge of the Pool at the Chedi


The presence of these hotels is a testament to the adaptability of Omani culture to include expats, while preserving their cultural identity. The stark, minimal buildings often leave you wondering about the contemporary art scene in Oman, but it is apparently quite vibrant. The “movement” or style that particularly attracted my attention is Calligraffiti.

One of Madny Al Bakhry’s works

Traditional Islamic calligraphy is taught under the patronage of the Sultan at various art and religious schools across the country. It can take years to master, and requires intense dedication and attention to detail. The transcription of a single page of an officially sanctioned Quranic verse can take between 2-3 days. Emerging from this art form is a new art form described by its founder as “caligraffiti.” It uses elements of traditional calligraphy with influences of African and modern graffiti.

The founder of the movement is Omani artist Madny Al Bakry. His extensive body of work is testament to the traditional Arabic calligraphy and its scope as a vehicle of contemporary expression.  I personally feel that it is a beautiful expression of the traditional cultural relationship between Oman and Zanzibar due to their Ibadi roots. If you look through his entire body of work, the complex colors and patterns only highlight the beautiful simplicity of this aesthetic. I would even argue that the pattern progressions evoke the same level of minimalism as Rothko’s most famous pieces.

Madny as represented on his website
Madny as represented on his website

Other events throughout the city like the Enchated Kids Cinema , and the Royal Opera House all add to the continuing artistic heritage of Oman.  Like many cultures in the world today, Oman continues grappling with the perfect balance between tradition, adaptation and innovation, but the burgeoning arts scene and the governments sense of pride in its heritage leave plenty of promise for the art-oriented traveler in the future.

Royal Opera House at Muscat






Cartography and Fine Art: Research for a Commission

I’ve been commissioned to create a map of India that has a slightly “antique” look to it. While my instructions are solely aesthetic, as a conscientious ex-art history student, I cannot proceed before doing the bare minimum research.

Here’s a (basic) definition of cartography to start with:

Cartography (from Greek χάρτης khartēs, “map”; and γράφειν graphein, “write”) is the study and practice of making maps. Combining science, aesthetics, and technique, cartography builds on the premise that reality can be modeled in ways that communicate spatial information effectively.

Here’s (an even more basic) definition of Fine Art:

One definition of fine art is “a visual art considered to have been created primarily for aesthetic and intellectual purposes and judged for its beauty and meaningfulness, specifically, painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, graphics, and architecture.”

Although the historical purpose of cartography has been to define and locate places, or rather, to share information about the location of specific places, cartography developed its own “language” & aesthetic serving both political and aesthetic purposes.

When the “Age of Exploration” began in earnest maps became important political tools for European powers. A consensus of territory and property rights was critical in their scramble for both knowledge and economic power. As a tool that defined political power, maps, when presented as artwork conferred an abstract territorial power on their owners that may not be obvious through verbal communication alone.

Examples of "artistic" maps as symbols of Colonial Power
Examples of “artistic” maps as symbols of Colonial Power

For example, in this blog post, Popova describes how the above map, commissioned by the British East India Company, signifies Britain’s role as heir to the Portugese empire from the time of Marco Polo.

From here on, I decided to look at the aesthetics of cartography.  Since, I’ve been commissioned to look at maps of India, I decided to look up “illustrated” maps of India to look for that “antiquated” aesthetic I was asked to emulate.

Map of Hindostan, or British India

I then decided to look at a few modern interpretations of Indian Maps, just to incorporate the viewpoint of contemporary India into an aesthetic referencing antiquity

Topographically accurate map

This next one is particularly beautiful as a piece of art, though I cannot speak to its representative integrity

Beautiful Travel Poster of India

The aim of my project is to combine the precision of the older maps with the color/visual appeal of the map above.



I grew up in India, living in various cities from Kolkata to Madras to Mumbai. I remember always taking things like rangoli for granted. It’s interesting how it takes appropriation of your culture to see something ordinary as beautiful

Art & Life Blog


Rangoli is a folk art from India in which patterns are created on the floor in living rooms or courtyards using materials such as colored rice, dry flour, colored sand or flower petals. It is usually made during Diwali, Onam, Pongal and other Indian festivals. They are meant to be sacred welcoming areas for the Hindu deities. The ancient symbols have been passed down through the ages, from each generation to the next, keeping both the art form and the tradition alive. Similar practices are followed in different Indian states: in Tamil Nadu, there is Kolam in Tamil Nadu; Mandana in Rajasthan; Chowkpurna in Northern India; Alpana in West Bengal; Aripana in Bihar; Chowk pujan in Uttar Pradesh; Muggu in Andhra Pradesh and others.
An Indian resident paints a ‘Rangoli’ design in front of her house on the eve of the Hindu festival Makar Sankaranti, in Lankamura village on the…

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Painting the smell of cheese?

“This is not a blog post.”

Standing Ovation, Seated

I bumped into this mini-installation by Rene Magritte at the surrealist exhibition at Centre Pompidou a few days ago.

I knew Magritte loved to play with meanings and visuals.

I’ve been using Magritte’s “This is not a pipe” for ages to harass friends (and an ocassional foe) with the question, “What is wrong here?” The answer, in the majority of cases, was “the text is wrong”.

This is a fast proof that the visual channel is the boss for most of us.

Thinking about letters and meanings kicks in later, after the brain has already registered and catalogued the image as a “pipe”. So when the rational brain finally catches up, it decides that there’s something wrong with the letters. The rational meaning of the inscription comes to the peace conference well after the perfect image of a pipe has climbed up the stage and set out its own agenda.


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