Lalla Essaydi’s installation brings sense of female progression to contemporary art world

Lalla Essaydi/Courtesy

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The storefronts on Sutter Street in San Francisco reflect Western society so well it is almost striking — a cheesy Americana diner, some vaguely neo-impressionist work of the Eiffel Tower in a gallery off of Powell Street, a Starbucks connected to the Sir Francis Drake Hotel. Located just across from the Starbucks and a couple doors down is a gallery with an unusual mounted photograph in its window.

The photograph is of a woman lying on her side in an odalisque position. Her cascading, dark hair frames her tattooed face, and she boldly looks out at the viewer. She is enveloped in what look like gold sequins, glittering in beautiful Near Eastern mosaic-esque patterns like an exquisite kaleidoscope. If strolling down Sutter Street, this would be the window that would attract the pedestrian, forcing him or her to stop walking altogether, glancing into the gallery with curiosity and intrigue.

This photograph is only one among a vast array of other works done by renowned artist Lalla Essaydi in an installation entitled “New Beauty.”

Showcased at Jenkins Johnson Gallery this month, Essaydi is also featured in the permanent collections of the Louvre Museum in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar.

She recently exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and is currently featured in Houston at the FotoFest 2014 Biennial.

Essaydi, who grew up in Morocco, has been extremely influenced by her childhood, background and Islamic identity. “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim,” she says on her website. “In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”

“New Beauty” is no exception. She showcases solely female figures, adorned in embroidered silks, elaborate textiles and — in the case of the piece in the window — what appears to be gold sequins. Upon closer inspection, the sequins are revealed to be bullet casings, cut and repurposed as decoration. Essaydi herself has designed, fabricated and sewn together the casings to create shawls and backdrops, speaking to a violent aesthetic that is as powerful as it is beautiful.

The image brings to mind a line from Irish poet W.B. Yeats’ poem “Easter, 1916”: “All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born.” In a world as removed from 20th-century Catholic Ireland as can possibly be, Essaydi’s photographs similarly turn to religion, politics and current social issues: Islamic culture and faith, the female role in political revolutions, Orientalism and the “terrible beauty” that has resulted from all that has changed in the past five years of social turmoil in the Arab world.

“During the time of the Arab Spring, at the beginning, I was so enchanted (with) how women were at the forefront of everything,” Essaydi said in an interview. “And then once the (new) governments were in place, the first rule they want is to put women back again … My response to it is to use something that is so beautiful but when you think about it is really significant of violence and violence on women to protect the domestic space.”

The domestic space is a major topic at the source of Essaydi’s photography. Images are set at colorful Moroccan harems, a space of Eastern femininity where women, in their embellished caftans and elaborate jewelry, are seen as objects just as the props that surround them. The female models that Essaydi uses gaze directly at the viewer, reflecting the harem as a place that plays off of the male gaze, a voyeuristic activity at the heart of both Eastern and Western visual and aesthetic culture. Models’ skin is covered in calligraphy done in henna, a clever manner of employing a male-dominated art — calligraphy — and juxtaposing it with an art done by women for women.

What “New Beauty” brings to the contemporary art world is a sense of female progression in a traditional sphere — a way to tend to wounds that have not, as of yet, healed.

Addy Bhasin covers visual art. Contact her at [email protected].