The exhibition Decisive Moments: Photographs from the Collection of Cherye R. and James F. Pierce includes two striking works by New York–based Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi, who gives the lecture Gender, Power and Traditions on Monday, April 21, at 7pm in the Doris Duke Theatre.
The artist generously answered a few questions by email about her work.
Your photographic work is largely of Arab women. Can you tell us a little about it?
It is obvious that while my photographs are expressions of my own personal history, they can also be taken as reflections on the life of Arab women in general. There are continuities, of course, within Arab culture, but I am uncomfortable thinking of myself as a representative of all Arab women. Art can only come from the heart of an individual artist, and I am much too aware of the range of traditions and laws among the different Arab nations to presume to speak for everyone. My work documents my own experience growing up as an Arab woman within Islamic culture seen now from a very different perspective. It is the story of my quest to find my own voice, the unique voice of an artist, not an attempt to present myself as a victim, which would deprive me of the very complexity I wish to express.
These photographs have led me to a greater understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture. Traditionally, the presence of men has defined public spaces: the streets, the meeting places, the places of work. Women, on the other hand, have been confined to private spaces, the architecture of the home. Physical thresholds define cultural ones, hidden hierarchies dictate patterns of habitation. Thus crossing a permissible, cultural threshold into prohibited “space” in the metaphorical sense, can result in literal confinement in an actual space. Many Arab women today may feel the space of confinement to be a more psychological one, but its origins are, I think, embedded in architecture itself. In my photographs, I am constraining the women within space and also confining them to their “proper” place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. The henna painted on their bodies corresponds to the elaborate pattern of the tiles. The women then, become literal odalisques (odalisque, from the Turkish, means to belong to a place).
The calligraphy in Converging Territories #2 and Silence of Desire #1 is beautiful and elaborate—was it added digitally or do you write the callibraphy directly on the textiles and models?
In Converging Territories #2, the writing is done directly on the figures, on the fabric that covers the walls, and in the clothing. In Silence of Thought #1, the text is written directly on the skin of the model, and it took up to nine hours to write before taking the picture.
What is the text?
The text is from my journal, and it is deliberately illegible, invented forms that allude to kufic calligraphy but yield little direct access to information. Thus, the play between graphic symbolism and literal meaning and the largely European assumptions that the written holds the best access to reality are constantly questioned.
Who are the women in the two works, and where were they photographed?
All models are family members, and, later, family friends. Each of the spaces that I have created in my works serves to create new questions about spaces of memory as they are revised in a liminal “home of the present.” Through my visual representations of hybridity, I am hoping to empower my subjects, my experience, and my history by reconfiguring my personal and national histories in the converging territories of the present.