Tag Archives: Lalla Essaydi

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.

 

 

 

 

Art Dubai 2014: An Expat’s Prespective

 

First, let me clarify that this is my first (and most likely last) Art Dubai. The event is an annual celebration of Contemporary Art in Dubai with adjacent events like the Art Week, Sikka Art Fair, Design Days etc.

View of the Madinat Canal
View of the Madinat Canal

Part of my experience of the event has been colored by living in countries with a longer history in fine arts like South Africa, India and Canada. However, knowing next to nothing about Contemporary Middle Eastern Art, I found the experience very educational.

View of the Art Dubai 2014 Venue from the Madinat
View of the Art Dubai 2014 Venue from the Madinat

Certain aspects of the event have been heavily commercialized, though I assume this is unavoidable in a heavily consumer driven economy like Dubai. For example, vending stalls sold food and beverages similar to what one might expect at a concert or sports stadium & the majority of attendees were more socialites than art aficionados. These minor criticisms aside the volume and quality of Middle Eastern art was a visual and intellectual delight.

I started my experience at the Art Dubai Modern section of the exhibition. The walk to the venue offered magnificent views of the Burj Al Arab and the Souk Madinat Jumeirah. It was disappointing to see that many artists were not in attendance, though they were represented by their Art Galleries.

Walk to the Art Dubai Modern section
Walk to the Art Dubai Modern section

I was particularly impressed with A Modernist Project for Lebanon by Michel Basbous. His sculptures echoed the archaeological value of Lebanon, while creating products that were unashamedly simple and modern.

Michel Basbous, A Modernist Project for Lebanon
Michel Basbous, A Modernist Project for Lebanon

Other artist’s work also caught my eye, specifically Syed Sadequain’s calligraphic, vast works and Anwar Jalal Shemza’s clear, precise aesthetic.

Anwar Jalal Shemza
Anwar Jalal Shemza
Syed Sadequain
Syed Sadequain

The Art Dubai Projects exhibition was much more prolific with works by Lalla Essaydi and Wiley Kehinde. In particular, seeing Lalla Essaydi’s response to early 20th Century Orientalism was interesting. Her female figures are also objectified, though at least, they do force a dialogue on Orientalism. The most striking piece of the exhibition was Place Soweto (National Assembly II) by Wiley Kehinde. The larger than life piece was both absorbing and confrontational.

Wiley Kehinde Place Soweto
Wiley Kehinde, Place Soweto, Oil on Canvas 305 x 229 cm, Galerie Daniel Templeton
Lalla Essaydi
A response to Orientalism

I was also fortunate enough to attend a conversation with Taus Makhacheva and Stephanie Bailey on Makhacheva’s art. She first explored the idea of obscenely ostentatious weddings in her native Dagestan. I especially liked her comments on her other work Endeavour. She said “[Endeavour] is about life…you know…me pushing against a rock for about 9 minutes and then giving up.”

Endeavour by Makhacheva
Endeavour by Makhacheva
Makhacheva's Talk on Dagestani Bridal Culture
Makhacheva’s dialogue on Dagestani Bridal Culture with Stephanie Bailey

The Cartier room was another highlight of the exhibition. If you are not impressed by their impressive craftsmanship on traditional jewelry, then their crystal “city-like” project more than compensated with its aesthetic, conceptual value and execution.

Cartier Sculpture
Cartier Sculpture
Cartier Sample
Cartier Sample

Overall, the exhibition was not a “traditional” art show in the sense that a gallery patron from a more developed art market may expect, but it was certainly educational and relayed more of the questions that Middle Eastern artists and collectors are grappling with than I expected.

 

View of the Venue by Night
View of the Venue by Night

 

LEGO Piece
LEGO Piece