The women's gazes say everything, even that which their mouths don't or can't. What their gazes do not relate, the script, written on their clothes and skin, serves as representation of their silenced voices. This is the nexus of the art work of Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi, whose work is currently on display at the National Museum of African Art's exhibition, "Lalla Essaydi: Revisions" on view through February 24, 2013.
"Revisions" is a retrospective of Essaydi's work, from her early days as a painter through her most recent works, including a video installation piece surrounded by floor-to-ceiling gauze panels derived from her famous work, "The Three Silences."
"Embodiment" is a provocative assemblage drawn from her earlier series "Converging Territories," of which "The Three Silences" is a part. In it, Essaydi revisits childhood interiors and memories, where women existed surrounded by each other, hidden from the outer world. The thesis of most of her work redefines the perspective of the Western Orientalist painters, who eroticized and instilled their own Western fantasies of Arab women's lives in the harem, engaging the notion that Arab women undertake their lives in the harem nude, thus sexualizing them and turning them into objects of a voyeuristic view.
Essaydi's foray into the art world began relatively late. She entered into it as an adult, studying initially in France at École des Beaux Arts, and then in the United States where she received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from Tufts University in 1999 and a Master of Fine Arts from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2003.
"Lalla Essaydi: Revisions" marks the first time that her entire artistic oeuvre has been exhibited all together, joining her rarely seen paintings with selections from her more familiar photography and the multimedia installation "Embodiment."
The first gallery displays Essaydi's paintings, which are a take off on the Orientalists' paintings of the 19th century, when Western artists traveled to the Middle East in search of exotic landscapes and forbidden interiors. The focus is on Jean-Léon Gérôme's "Slave Market," which depicts a naked Arab woman being sold into slavery in the company of fully clothed men, one who inserts his fingers into her mouth. Essaydi responds to this sexualization of the Arab woman in the painting "Duty Free" (2004) in the section of the exhibition, "Revisions: Painting and Desire." In it, she places the slave woman in a humorous light, firmly rooted in the present, as evidenced by a bathing-suit clad vacationer in the background.
"In the context of Orientalism, beauty is quite dangerous, as it lures the viewer into accepting the fantasy," Essaydi writes. "I want to expose the distortions these paintings present and provoke the viewer into a different kind of seeing, one that shapes a new understanding."
Essaydi's best known work is her photography, which combines her continued reassessment of the Orientalists' works with her own personal iconography that encompasses Moroccan women in spaces with backgrounds of voluminous fabric layered in script. Rather than using ink, Essaydi employs henna dye, naturally found in her culture where women paint designs on their skin using the natural pigment for special occasions such as weddings. Essaydi's familiar series "Converging Territories" and "Les Femmes du Maroc" center around the women covered in fabric and on their skin embellished in this script, which, according to Essaydi, represents the voices of the women that are unheard.
"The calligraphy can't be read," Essaydi said. "The text becomes a work in itself, its own language. This is my own take on calligraphy. The visual part of the text becomes a visual language of its own."
The translation of the text relates to Essaydi's childhood memories of her home in Marrakesh, Morocco and is shaped by her own particular history. The women she employs as models have much in common with her – either through their identity as Moroccan Arab women, or as actual relatives of the artist.
"The text becomes the voices of the women," Essaydi adds. "The fabric, gauze, is transparent, but is also the fabric used in hospitals."
"Lalla Essaydi: Revisions" is an aesthetic delight, taking into account the process required to produce the photographs and the calligraphic embellishments. Yet it also requires deeper examination in relation to the women it depicts, whether they are in the stark white background of the text-covered fabric, or in decorative clothing that blends into specific settings. In her "Harem" series, photographed in Morocco's renowned and ornately decorated Dar el Basha Palace, the artist intentionally allows the models to disappear into the lush background, where once again they are seen, but silent.
Whether they stare directly at the viewer from behind the veil, or gaze unaffectedly within their own interiors, the women pictured in Essaydi's work seek to revise the global understanding of the reality of Arab women's lives and the spaces that they occupy, both literally and theoretically.
"This is the most important exhibition I have had," Essaydi said. "I haven't been seen as an African artist, so to see my work in an African museum is very important to me. To give people the ideas of all the media I work with is very important. And it is wonderful to see all the work together."
The National Museum of African Art is located at 10th and Independence Avenue, NW on the National Mall. The museum is open daily [except Christmas Day] from 10 a.m. until 5:30 p.m.