Art Through Time: A Global View
Conflict and Resistance Art: Converging Territories #30
In this photograph, number thirty in Lalla Essaydi’s Converging Territories series, we see a progression of Muslim women at four different stages in life from childhood to adulthood.
As they age, their bodies are increasingly concealed, so that the most mature member of the group is completely covered head to foot. Calligraphic script, written in henna, marks the surfaces of everything in the work—the faces of the younger women, the cloth worn by all four figures, and the fabric draped over the wall and floor.
Essaydi, a Moroccan-born, Paris-trained artist, created the Converging Territories series as a means of examining the culture in which she grew up from the Western position she now occupies (Essaydi currently lives in the U.S.). Although women in present-day Morocco are not compelled to wear a veil, images like this one speak to the physical as well as metaphorical restrictions placed on women in conservative Islamic society, where they are confined largely to the architecture of the home. The continuous stream of writing in the photograph creates a decorative image in which the women and setting become almost inseparable. At the same time, the sea of words is liberating. It both adds a sense of fluid mobility to the scene and gives the artist and her subjects (usually women with similar backgrounds to her own) a voice. Drawn from Essaydi’s own diaries, the words are evidence of an interior life of the imagination as well.
Because calligraphy traditionally had been taught only to Muslim men, the text in Essaydi’s work takes on added meaning. In writing with henna, Essaydi embraces her cultural heritage and its gender roles. In Islamic practice, henna designs are applied by and on women during significant rites of passage and times of celebration. Yet, the self-taught calligrapher is also exercising her freedoms here. If this all seems contradictory, it is not without reason. “In my art,” Essaydi has explained, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”
Lalla Essaydi, Artist
“I went to art school and I was very curious to learn more about other cultures than mine. I thought I knew enough already. I needed to add a lot more to my own experience living here. And, as I was studying and learning, I realized that for me to understand other cultures I have to go back and understand mine. And so I just started going back home, going back to my own childhood.
The idea of the veil in my work really deals with the veil as a symbol also to emphasize the stereotype that people always associate the veil and oppression and how women are submissive. So I play with that in the sense that I seem to cater to that. In Morocco, really women don’t veil any longer. When I was growing up, calligraphy wasn’t really accessible to me at school. So it was much more accessible to men than to women in that sense. So we always thought of it as high art—a male art, in a sense. The henna is merely a craft, decorating the hands and the feet. So I wanted to merge this male art with female craft and try to make something of a statement with it. The text is really my diary, and it’s the story of these women. And the women become the pages, the chapters.”
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“Lalla Essaydi.” In Feminist Art Base. Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art. Brooklyn Museum Web site. http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base.
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