17 February 2007

Lalla Essaydi

Both Images © Lalla Essaydi from "Converging Territories"
(nos. 10 & 28)

"According to Islamic traditions, the street is the domain of the male, and women are condemned to live indoors. There they are in fact nothing more than decoration, suggests photographer Lalla Essaydi, a situation she visualizes in Converging Territories. Essaydi places Islamic women in an isolated space and literally decorates them with texts written in henna. The texts - a reversal of the silence of their isolation - give the women a voice, with which they can speak to the space and to one another. The rebellious character of the photographs is magnified by the fact that within Islam calligraphy may not be practiced by women.

Lalla Essaydi was born and raised in Morocco, but lives in the United States. Converging Territories was photographed in the house in which women from her family were sometimes locked up for weeks if they had transgressed the rules of Islam." (From Noorderlicht Photofesstival 2004.)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Having practiced Islamic calligraphy for years and being a Muslim woman -or should I say a deluding cunt as your "charming" friend claims- I feel the need to object the assertion of Lalla Essaydi that Islamic calligraphy may not be practiced by Muslim women. As a matter of fact, many of calligraphy masters in my country -Turkiye or Turkey as it is widely known- are women. It doesn't mean that I did not appreciate the image Lalla Essaydi meant to settle with her works but only that it would have been more striking if they had been founded on a more concrete base. Lastly, I would like to add that the freedom of women has been handicapped by quite a many things; most lamentably hijabb or burqa are not the only devices to achieve it. I hope to see some day some courageous photographer would also take the pictures of women suffering from anorexia/bulimia or pre-teen models whose rips might be counted from 15 meters away or a stressed-out mother who has to be a perfect business partner, a perfect, stimulating and intellectual mother, a domestic goddess and a perfect sexy, understanding, undemanding wife, all at the same time, and sad to add with a little support from the society and the family. Muslim or not, wearing whether burqa or a mini skirt, women are not free as long as their minds are not freed. It is time to perceive that oppression does not start from outside but inside and most abhorred visions of women oppression are only what they are: means. At this age, it is necessary to cut down to ends.
Thank you.

20 February, 2007 09:14  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Thanks very much for your thoughtful comment. I agree about the many facets of gender discrimination and oppression. My sense is that while various matters of dress and behavior are objeccitonable from that perspective, ethnocentrism (racism?) often is the unacknowledged motivation for picking out one as especially egregious while ignoring the rest. It is also important to recognize, I think, that the emergence of veiling (however strict) as a widespread practice in Islamic countries has been shown by historians to have been in important ways a response to colonialism. So it is a complex matter that is hardly dealt with through epithets and insults.

20 February, 2007 12:50  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: On the issue of Calligraphy, I am completely uninformed; but could it be the case that the practice is subject to different constraints re: gender in Turkey and Morroco (which is where Essaydi is from)?

20 February, 2007 13:06  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a humble artist of calligraphy, I haven't heard of such a constraint. However, since it seems to be a very absurd notion - as any means of oppression is-, it has the probability of being quite true. Even if it is so, don't you think it by no means lessen the responsibility of the artist whose message would reach to many and whose claim would have been sounder if she were to state women are not allowed to practice calligraphy according to the Moroccan culture, not Islam? It has a wearing effect when all the good things concerning a religion is attributed to the people while each and every bad deed members of that religion achieved is directly attributed to the constitution of that religion itself, as if its members are not human-beings with failings but those deeds are performed under the strict instructions of a demented god. Sometimes, those statements in absurdness reach to such a gigantic proportion that they became as silly as a statement which would claim Holocaust took place because the teachings of Christianity demanded it. Heavens forbid, Islam has enough in its lap to deal with without adding false opinions. Thus, I think such a distinction on calligraphy should have been made. Although its not being made might be understandable, the artist might have simply assumed that it is so in every part of "Islamdom", because of afore mentioned circumstances it is not quite acceptable.
I must be honest though, in these days, when it is “in” to peck at Islam, I am cautious towards the works of art which are Islamic-images centered. My suspicions are two-sided: Firstly, I dread that the balance of tolerance and prejudice between different cultures would be harmed and false opinions would be consolidated by the casual works of populist artists who are after gaining the benefits of dealing with a politically popular theme than art itself. On the other hand, the works of artists who really suffered, who sincerely want to shed a light to the loose-ends of a civilization must be more than appreciated. Those works of art, no matter how upsetting the images they draw attention to might be, are the very cures to the problems they present. (But then, yes, I am a very old-fashioned person, one of those last remaining on the age of post-modernism who still believes the ennobling and improving effect of art.) Secondly, I dread specifically for women, because since the colonialism, the arrogance of so-called saviors of oppressed women has only worsen the situation of those women which is evident from the example you wrote about the reactionary re-possession of veil. Intervention, judgmental intervention above all, from outside, from people who has little or none acquisition of the culture those women are living it, only leads way to confusion and frustration. Women, Muslim women least of all, do not need a knight in armour. If they want to be free according to what “others” fit as free, as the saying goes, they must state the terms of the freedom as they choose, all by themselves.
Therefore, I found the fragility of the photos touchingly symbolic. The artist’s usage of henna must be especially highlighted since it is what women in "the Orient" have been using to decorate their bodies, to make-up for centuries and now it is being used by a woman artist to "show" the voice of these women. It gives the "veiled" power to the photos, a power which is sensed but not seized by the viewer. The veiled power which we sense is the power of ancient, when in contrast to modern times to see without being seen, to see but not being seen was the ultimate power, when the power was in the eyes of the beholder. That was why only free women could wear veil. Sadly enough, a show of appreciation bestowed upon women of ancient, has being deformed and misshapen by the ruling/dominant practicers of religions of Semitic tradition (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) into a means of oppression. (Yes, and I also have very romantic notions about the ancient times.)
I am sorry I took these comments too long. It has been a rare opportunity. Thank you.

21 February, 2007 20:51  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...


I suspect you are hardly a "humble artist." That said, I think you are onto an important point - how do we differentiate between some practice that is required or prohibited by Islam (or any other religion) and practicecs that are localized and, so do to cultural or political traditions distinct from the religion. ALl of this is an issue of usually contested interpretation, not just in the case at had, but quite generally.

I think your reflections here are right on point and quite accurate. The problems are difficult, but will not, as you rightly say, be "solved" or "remedied" by outsiders. I do think that outsiders can support local participants in their efforts to define their own lives. That is a much larger quesiton.

Having said all that, I am glad you have come to write comments here. I hope you will do so again in the future.


22 February, 2007 09:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Jim,
I would like to attract your attention to a site, whose commercial I have recently seen on tv. It is a website from Belgium, where you can "rent" a wife, or as many as you want, up to eight. As you had said gender discrimination has many facets. This commercial is a depressing example how women are "really" perceived by common men regardless of their cultural/ethnical/religious standing. The disturbing thing about the commercial is that they deliver the wife/wives packaged like barbie dolls, all tied up and put in a semi-transparent box. If the consumer decides to return the wife, he is supposed to re-package "the commodity". I can say many things about this, but I will not say anything. I am beginning to lose my hope for humanity every passing day.

12 April, 2007 12:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Essaydi, I saw one of your photos with a woman reclined. Her feet were painted with black henna, and her lips had clumps of black ink on them. That piece was very emotional because of its size. My point is that the women with their hair exposed reminded me of my sister. I am an American, but the bridge to either culture made me feel very at home. I appreciate the way you treated written language to bridge that missing space. ~Pascal Lacy

12 April, 2008 13:14  
Blogger Unknown said...

I have just seen Lalla Essaydi's SILENCE OF THIUGHT#2 at the North Carolina Museum of Art. The image is strongly impressed in my grey matter. Thanks for the conversation.

18 June, 2008 19:23  
Blogger Unknown said...

I would like to gently and modestly comment that, though Essaydi's paintings and photographs obviously evoke issues of women in Muslim society, it is very important to also view her work as an expression of personal experience (especially in response to the practice of calligraphy in her native region) rather than simply a representation/reflection of society, though the latter seems to be the way in which her photographs are largely interpreted.

15 July, 2010 09:37  

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