Sightlines are an important consideration—not only in exhibition making and museums, but in all public displays and civic venues—and they are critical in Lalla Essaydi’s artistic practice, especially as conceptual device. The eponymous mini survey of Lalla Essaydi’s work at the Hunter Museum organized by chief curator Nandini Makrandi, underpins this importance.
Moroccan-born American photographer Lalla Essaydi explores the intersection of representation and objectification subjected to women in Arab cultures as created and consumed by the western world (including the perspectives of European artistic contexts) since the 19th century. As a visual image maker, Essaydi’s artistic process is rather complex: her carefully-composed photographs comprise a physical practice that involves painting (henna and calligraphic elements), textiles and costuming, sculptural elements (such as modified bullets), live models and set design/staging, interior design and physical architecture, and large format photography. Calling attention to the self-aware and fabricated nature of her images, Essaydi leaves visible black film borders with the (American) Kodak brand name. This physical framing device also unabashedly announces one of Essaydi’s main conceptual aims—calling out the constructed mythological fallacies inherent in Orientalist imagery, particularly by European artists like Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérômethat have only served to reduce, fetishize, and stereotype perceptions of the Arab world in the west.
On view in the Hunter’s second floor temporary exhibition gallery, the exhibition is punctuated by a grouping of interior walls painted in deep marine blue. Entering around the title wall reveals a direct sightline to the gallery’s central back wall, where the photographic subject of Essaydi’s Harem #14C –one of the two largest vertical works in the show–confidently gazes at you over her right shoulder, as if awaiting your presence: her reclined posture—seated, back leaned against the threshold with legs crossed—appears casual but is quite self-assured as she both invites and challenges you to enter into her physical and psychological proscenium.
As with Essaydi’s subjects, we can ask: Is the woman hypervisible, invisible, or perhaps rather, intervisible? Intervisibility refers to mutual visibility, or perhaps two sightlines crossing paths, which proves apparent in Essaydi’s Harem series. This series is unique as the works are not created or sited in a studio setting (such as in Converging Territories or Less Femmes du Maroc) but rather site specifically at the notable Moroccan palace, Dar el Bacha, built for Thami El Glaoui, the Pasha of Marrakech from 1912-1956. (Pasha Glaoui was a powerful and notorious ruler under French rule and fascinated by western culture and influence.) The women of Essaydi’s Harem become subsumed by this architecture and complicated history, visually presented as a meta layering where their garments and even shoes replicate and extend the exact ornate geometric patterning of the riad floors and walls thereby pushing the women’s bodies (which are also covered in Essaydi’s trademark henna skin ‘veiling’) to disappear or become secluded from the public as a women would have done traditionally in a harem. However, confidently and quite different from the earliest work in the show (Silence of Thought #2, 2003) they emerge from this physical and conceptual objectification through an understood intervisibility: simply put, they directly stare back at us; they are aware of our gaze and they hold it (more) accountable. The subjects in Harem reclaim the hidden world of the harem as a site of cultural empowerment not just a site of sexual fantasy. And as if knowingly through our return gaze, we admit to our constructed fascination and subsequent insecurities with it all. If we’re honest, Arab and Muslim women’s public and private lives, particularly with regard to wardrobing and veiling customs, has remained an involved topic for western audiences. But contemporary global colonization evolves into other sly manifestations as well which continue centuries of fantasy and appropriation: just think of recent western interior designers taking a particular fascination in Moroccan design elements that appear on home furnishings of all price points and commercial settings.
Essaydi’s Harem series is one of six series on view in the exhibition, and while not installed chronologically, you can witness her artistic development that occurred over a decade through select major works from each with dates ranging from 2003-2014. In fact, self-reflexively tracing this evolution is important to Essaydi herself as she revisits and reinterprets earlier work in an artistically intervisible process: Harem evolves into into Harem Revisited, and the remix of her Bullets series becomes Bullets Revisited.
An institutional sightline is also central to this exhibition’s story: Essaydi first entered the Hunter’s collection in 2011 with the acquisition of La Grande Odalisque from the Les Femmes Du Maroc series. From the curatorial perspective where I write, this is an important takeaway: an American museum in the South is willing to put more curatorial investment into an artist that they have acquired, thereby building out further additional context and stewardship for a work that can be housed sometimes piecemeal in a permanent collection. Even though temporary, Lalla Essaydi provides a moment to build more depth and enrichment with local audiences that may have engaged with La Grande Odalisque at the Hunter in the past decade since its purchase.
So not only is the objectification and gaze towards Arab women (re)directed in Essaydi’s practice – but if we pick up on it, this exhibition speaks to a moment for the Hunter museum to refocus its institutional gaze inward–to add supplemental contextual support for an artist that has garnered visitor interest and provided educational opportunities to for the museum speak about gender and cultural power dynamics, to continue to grow its holdings by contemporary women, BIPOC and artists with diverse perspectives and histories, and to change perceptions and expand reductions at a local audience level. To support this effort, the Hunter hosted a panel on November 18th (which was developed over a year) which included Chattanooga residents Sadaf Khan, Sarah Elghalban, and Randa Iteim from the city’s Muslim and Arab diasporas of Sudan, Palestine and Pakistan, who shared their thoughts alongside moderator Dr. Jaclyn Michael, UTC Assistant Professor of Religion. The panel offered a public moment for three women to offer their perspectives “as Americans and as Chattanoogans” on the complex nature of contemporary identities, and they reinforced the important understanding shared in Essaydi’s work that Muslim and Arabic cultures are not monolithic and thereby visual representations of them should not be either.
A oeuvre that has a tendency to be interpreted and written about a bit academically, standing amidst the scale of Essaydi’s work in person reminds us gutturally of the simple visual power, and responsibility, of image making and image “reading”. While her artistic seduction lies in reinterpreting problematic images from the past (correcting mythologies, historic power imbalances or visual fetishizations) Essaydi merely draws us in to her contemporary, richly textured, and visually decadent compositions that appeal without requiring or overtly asking for deep colonial historical understandings or critiques. Essaydi’s intimate yet cinematic work allows us to understand an artist’s motivations from her own biographical perspectives, a rich hybrid of multi-cultural experience.
Lalla Essaydi is on view through January 9, 2022.