May 10, 2020

Carrie Tovar on Lalla Essaydi

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SMoCA staff members each chose an artwork from our collection exhibition Unapologetic: All Women, All Year to highlight. Registrar, Carrie Tovar, selected Lalla Essaydi’s work Converging Territories #9 (2004–2005) to focus on and had this to say about her work:

“I have long been interested in the arts of the Arab world, but more recently have become fascinated by the art created by Arab women, most notably Lalla Essaydi. Essaydi successfully makes the invisible now visible and reveals unseen stories, settings, and experiences. I am drawn to her use of henna and calligraphy. Henna, a form of decoration that is incredibly important to the lives of Arab women is combined with calligraphy, which she was unable to learn in school because it was seen as an aspect of the male world. Her creation of works of both linguistic and visual artistry are subversive in their nature and provide a window into a world rarely seen.” 

About Lalla Essaydi

Traditionally in Islamic culture, public space is occupied by men, and women are relegated to private, confined spaces. The artist believes that physical thresholds thus define cultural thresholds, and confinement can manifest beyond physical barriers. Essaydi’s portraits reflect this tradition of constraint and, simultaneously, act in silent rebellion against it. The artist uses calligraphy—a sacred Islamic art forbidden to women—and applies it over the body, clothing, and room with henna, an adornment worn and applied only by women. Merging the male tradition of calligraphy with the female art of henna, Essaydi challenges the gender boundaries of Arab culture, giving the womenin her portraits a voice in a space of silence. Lalla Essaydi’s work encompasses the way that space, both actual and metaphorical, can inform aspects of being. Her portraits are not only a reflection of her personal experiences as an Arab woman but are also an examination of how her firsthand encounter with the Western perspective, specifically aspects of Orientalism, have shaped her past, present, and future.

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