“Harem and Bullets Revisited,” Lalla Essaydi’s exhibition at Jackson Fine Art [through July 3], focuses a gaze directly on those who would fetishize women in their eroticization of the “Other.” The exhibition recalls the heyday of such ideas in the 1980s and ’90s, but to simply position her work as new interpretations would be a mistake. Essaydi both usurps and reinterprets—she learned a traditional male practice, calligraphy, which she now uses to literally inscribe the surfaces of her models’ bodies with Islamic texts. She then places them in poses and compositions that she constructs based on 19th-century Orientalist paintings.
Of the eight works in the exhibition, Bullets Revisited #1 and #15 are perhaps the most challenging. In the first, Essaydi’s model is locked in a gaze with the viewer, fragmented across three frames, with a bullet hanging around her neck. While shell casings form tapestries in many if not all of the pieces, the cartridge emerges at unusual times with more powerful and more loaded meanings. In Bullets Revisited #15, her subject holds a dove in the balance. Perhaps the meaning is too evident and too superficial, but it is also direct. More problematic, perhaps, are the moments when Essaydi’s works are so effective that her subjects are literally in danger of disappearing into her grounds, as they are in Harem Revisited #51, in which the skin tones, calligraphy, and patterning are all so finely detailed that it is difficult to tell where identity ends and pattern begins. Perhaps that is precisely Essaydi’s point.