Category Archives: Political Art

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.






Of masks & magic: Uldus Bakhtiozina makes images that poke fun at stereotypes

TED Blog

Stormtrooper: A portrait of a 12-year-old boy who hides his aspirations to be a ballet dancer from his friends.Stormtrooper: A portrait of a 12-year-old boy who hides his aspirations to be a ballet dancer from his friends. Image: Uldus Bakhtiozina

A 12-year-old boy in a Stormtrooper helmet – and a tutu. A hulking man wearing a pre-Raphaelite collar of Barbie dolls. A bride standing wistfully in a garden, her face obscured by a wrestling mask. Russian photo-based artist Uldus Bakhtiozina’s whimsical and surreal images — which feature models as well as herself — raise an eyebrow at identity, gender and cultural stereotypes with humor and thoughtfulness. Exquisitely detailed and lit like classical paintings, her images reveal a vulnerability in her heavily costumed subjects, offering layers of meaning and emotion. At TED2014, we spoke to Uldus about her work and worldview. Below, an edited transcript of our conversation.

Tell us about yourself and how you got started.

I found my way to photography six years ago. At the time, I was doing my art degree in England. There I was, surrounded with…

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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.


Street Art: Waiting for Climate Change

Global Art Junkie


Climate change – in the news after release of this week’s United Nations report – is a topic of significance for Spanish street artist Isaac Cordal.  One of the best known of his cement sculpture installations is Waiting for Climate Change, created for the Château des Ducs de Bretagne in Nantes, France. 

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An Inside Out portrait that delivers a message to drone operators

It is more political in nature, but Art nonetheless

TED Blog

jr_kpk_fullThis portrait of a girl tells a story larger than the massive piece of vinyl it is printed on. Unfurled in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region of Pakistan, “#NotABugSplat” was created by a collection of artists and activists, using TED Prize winner JR’s Inside Out campaign, to send a message to drone operators, who reportedly call their kills “bug splats” because they appear small and grainy on screen. The idea is to “create empathy and introspection amongst drone operators,” explains the project website.

Below, an image JR posted about this Inside Out project via Instagram:

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