Orientalism in 19th century art has a long - and for some - discredited artistic history. From Ingres to Delacroix and into the 20th century, Western male painters have loved to paint harem scenes, full of alluring houris, scantily clad, presenting a fantasy of exotic sexuality and erotic delights.
Moroccan born Lalla Essayadi takes this Western stereotypes and plays with them to create effects both decorative and political. There is no denying the beauty of her photographs. Odalisques are draped across divans; covered with calligraphy and clad flowing robes of cream and white, they gaze alluringly at the viewer. Each larger than life sized chromogenic print contains as much complexity as Moroccan pastilla, the many layered pastry that is both savory and sweet.
In her earlier series, "Harem," Essaydi posed young and beautiful dark eyed beauties in the harem quarters of an old Moroccan palace where she had spent time as a child. With their bodies painted with calligraphy and draped in flowing, embroidered traditional garments, Essaydi attempted to make statements about feminism, Western attitudes toward the Middle East and the whole complex of emotions of mostly Western males. To photograph them against the private space of the harem was to remind the Western viewer of the voyeuristic tradition in art, especially that of Western male artists gazing at women in the Middle East.
In my earlier review of her 2011 show at Jenkins Johnson, I wrote, "The stylistic simplicity in Essaydi's work prevents it from becoming merely decorative but they do not support the weight of her political intentions. The subjects of her gaze, shrouded in white burkas and completely veiled, covered with her indecipherable and personal calligraphy, merge with their background. But while they do present an oriental tinged sexuality to the viewer, they still have no voice of their own. Nor does her calligraphy illuminate what might have been their voices for it is untranslatable."
For the average viewer, the calligraphy covered and sumptuous bodies of her dark eyed and dark haired women did not convey the subversion of Middle Eastern gender stereotypes. Only the careful reader would find out that the calligraphy, so present in her photographs, was supposed to be the prerogative of men.
Essaydi comes closer visualizing her political message in her current work at Jenkins Johnson. Instead of being enclosed within a harem, her women are now poised within a carefully arranged sets. In place of the traditional Moroccan tile with their blue and turquoise glazes and the palace arches, the background of these current photographs is composed of bullet shells.
Henna, a traditional herb used as a cosmetic and hair dye, is here used as ink for the calligraphy that covers every surface. The women are still enclosed in long flowing robes, some with the creamy fabric spilling onto the edges of the photographs. Their gaze is less alluring and in one case, the woman turns her back on the viewer.
In an interview with Abigail R. Esman, Essaydi wrote that the "Bullet series series comprises artworks that use castings of bullets as a key element; they adorn all surfaces, woven into costumes and threaded around women. The body of work evolved as a response to the developments in Morocco and the rest of the Arab world. This new work references fear about growing restrictions on women in the new, post revolutionary era that followed demonstrations in the Arab world."
She sees the new series as much more openly confrontational as the bullets directly reference the violence which now seems epidemic in the Middle East. The use of the product of the gun also refers to the violence used against Arab women to force them back into their traditional roles.
The amount of work that goes into each set piece is staggering. Essaydi's assistants buy the bullet casings by the bucket. They are then sorted, cut and eventually woven into mesh. She hires people who have hunting licenses so they can fire the bullets and free the casing shells. Essaydi then cuts the casings and embeds them into wood panels to create tiles, beds and floors.
The work is so decorative and beautiful that it's difficult to get past the surface. Yet, one must respect Essaydi's labor intensive presentation of her ideas enough to do so.
In the same interview, Essaydi said of her multi-faceted response to her heritage, "I full heartedly celebrate the cultural riches of Morocco and the Arab world, but also, I would also say that all elements of my work are carefully considered. Gender roles in Morocco are perpetuated by our aesthetics, our cultural riches, so combining traditionally male and female art forms has been a vital tool for me to express and question gender hierarchies. My work is in many ways autobiographical, it is about the experience of a woman questioning stereotypes impressed on her by both the East and West." (Where Sacred Law And Pleasure Collide: The Photographs of Lalla Essaydi, Blouin Art Info, December 2013).
At Jenkins Johnson through March 29. 464 Sutter Street, San Francisco 94108