Sunday, December 30, 2012

Lalla Essaydi: Revisions

Where: National Museum of African Art

When: through February 24, 2013

For this exhibit, we leave behind the world of sub-Saharan Africa and journey to North Africa, specifically to the world of Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan-born woman who lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to France and eventually to the United States.  The world in which she lived prior to her time in the West was the world of the harem, where opportunities for women were, and continue to be, non-existent.  Her art depicts the limits placed on women - how they are treated as objects and made to "blend in" with the surroundings.  She has said that her art would not be possible without considerable distance from her homeland, and one cannot doubt that this is the case.

Essaydi has achieved considerable international acclaim as a photographer, but is also an accomplished painter and creator of multi-media installations.  All of these are on display here in her first solo exhibition.  Yet again, the Smithsonian has provided me, and all who visit its museums, with the opportunity to see things not on public display before.

In her "Harem" series of photographs (one of which is pictured above), we see one or more women wearing garments that exactly match the painting on the walls.  They are barely distinguishable from their background.  Obviously, this is meant to show how marginalized the women in these situations are, but I was also reminded of a chameleon, a creature who can blend in to escape its predators.  Do the women hide their true natures from their masters, to preserve some sense of themselves as human beings?

Another series of photographs is the "Three Silences of Molinos."  Based on a poem by Longfellow, which extols the virtue of the silence of thought, the silence of speech and the silence of desire, Essaydi compares this idea to the way in which women are treated in her homeland.  I was reminded of sitting in yoga class, being told to quiet my mind.  In this context, there's nothing wrong with not thinking about the day-to-day worries of life in order to focus on the breath, but when you're never allowed to have your own thoughts or opinions on any matter, you can see how stifling this would become.  Women are treated as property and their ideas, their wants, are accorded no value.

In many of Essaydi's photographs, the women have writing on their skin and on their garments.  This is an act of defiance, as women are not allowed to learn calligraphy.  This is a way to demonstrate that women can and will learn and use their intellects to create art and to speak out.

Essaydi not only depicts the suffering of women in her homeland, she also shows the views of Europeans towards the Middle East, not unlike the work of Jananne al-Ani.  Essaydi takes well-known European paintings and reworks them into photographs, featuring "exotic" North African women.  One of her works, a photograph showing another side of "La Grande Odalisque" by Ingres, hangs in the Louvre.

The multi-media installation is called "Embodiment."   It consists of hanging fabrics with her photographs silk-screened on them, and a video showing several small children playing.  This piece is Essaydi's way of dealing with her childhood memories of life in the Middle East.  For all of us, adulthood takes us to another country than that we inhabited as as child, but for her this is more true than for most of us.

The final room of the show focuses on her paintings.  They are reworkings of Orientalist paintings - similar to the earlier set of photographs.  She overturns the idea of the exotic and desirable North African woman who exists only to please men.  Like al-Ani, she makes you consider your assumptions about the Middle East and those who live there.

Verdict:  It's actually hard to look at Essaydi's photographs, knowing that the lives she depicts are real, but the exhibit is excellent and well worth a look.  

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