Lalla Essaydi, Moroccan-born, French-educated, resident of New York City by way of Saudi Arabia, wants very much to say something. Something specific, about immigration and the personal losses thus incurred, nineteenth-century Orientalist painting and its (mis)representation of Middle Eastern women, the particular condition of being female in Morocco. The National Museum of African Art has accorded her the space to do it with Lalla Essaydi: Revisions, a show concerned with presenting a complete picture of Essaydi’s output, which includes installation and painting, and not just the photographic series for which she’s best known. There is, resultantly, a lot to see, and it certainly does speak: Essaydi’s voice echoes from the audio recording playing in one corner of the room, iterating her childhood memories; her thoughts are written in henna across the bodies and backgrounds of photographed models; her words are quoted generously in the exhibition wall text. Unfortunately, none of this serves to make the art itself more interesting. In fact, it exacerbates the problem of its obviousness.
Lalla Essaydi, Harem Series; Courtesy of the artist & Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
The photographs, large-format chromogenic prints depicting women and girls posed in various symbolically-resonant postures and costume — nude and supine, sumptuously dressed and supine, shrouded and writing, painting, plaiting hair — constitute the majority of the show. Some are beautiful to look at. Images from Essaydi’s Harem series, many of them shot against the incredibly intricate, geometrically perfect interiors of Marrakesh’s Dar al Basha palace and installed as triptychs, play with pattern and composition in such a way that emphasizes the startling splendour of the setting and, at least in our imaginations, the lives of those dwelling there. She dresses her models in textiles that mirror the colours and shapes around them, and places them, “like jewels,” in her own words, in the centre of the scene, set in doors and archways. The images are meant to construct the harem as it was historically: not the erotic idyll evoked in Western Orientalist painting, but “the dangerous frontier” where religion and sex collided. Presumably, threat lies in the way that Essaydi’s models, outfitted and displayed as they are, look like they might soon be consumed by the architecture. But they also seem comfortably part of it — just as beautiful as it is, or the one addition capable of making it even more beautiful.
Other photographic series are more explicitly political. In Converging Territories #21, from the 2003-2004 series Converging Territories, a group of four studio portraits depict females of increasing age and increasing “modesty” — the last and most adult woman is entirely veiled, including her face. All are draped in plain beige fabric on which, like the beige backdrop behind them, Essaydi’s words are scrawled in purposefully illegible Arabic. Her voice, that of an expat Moroccan woman, is the only one speaking for them, and it is barely heard. Though it’s a powerful concept it’s not a difficult one to grasp, nor is it manifest in a compelling enough manner to warrant such concerted repetition. Yet Essaydi repeats this graphic device over and over, and to illustrate very similar points. In photographs from her later series Les Femmes du Maroc, more female models, similarly dressed and written on, strike poses we know from what I’ll call the Sexy Women of the Orient paintings of Delacroix and Ingres. Women in Morocco are not as these men rendered them. Yes, but what else? I want more from Essaydi’s works. And her femmes still look good, even dressed plainly and with dirty feet.
Lalla Essaydi, Grande Odalisque; Courtesy of the artist & Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
Then there are the installation and paintings. As the repositories of the exhibition’s “mature” content (i.e. two pairs of breasts in close proximity to each other and possibly a penis; the latter is awfully subtle), they are set off from the main gallery by a demure screen and a door, respectively. The installation, Embodiment, consists of hanging fabric banners printed with the same imagery we’ve just seen in Essaydi’s photographs and a meandering, home-movie-esque video projection accompanied by an equally incomprehensible narrative audio track. I don’t need or want the piece to be more decipherable, just more provocative. I felt the same way about the paintings. Here, again, the artist confronts the Western Orientalist tradition by mimicking it on the one hand and revising it on the other — where limpid beauties appear in the tableaux of nineteenth-century Frenchmen, Essaydi places confrontational and un-eroticized figures of all sexes: men, women, hermaphrodites. But don’t we already know what she is telling us, not least from the photographs on the other side of the door? Her knowledge and experience should of course be expressed, and I would like to hear her story, but on the condition that it be given more fascinating form. Otherwise, it could be anyone’s.
(Image on top: Lalla Essaydi, Converging Territories #21; Courtesy of the artist & Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.)