Photographer uses her lens to depict Muslim women as ‘powerful presences in their own right’

Lalla Essaydi is an artist originally from Morocco whose experiences have inspired her to create politically astute work that deconstructs and reimagines stereotypes of Muslim womanhood.

“My work is highly autobiographical,” Essaydi said. “In it, I speak my thoughts and talk directly about my experiences as a woman and an artist, finding the language with which to speak from those uncertain zones between memory and the present, East and West.

“The models I use are often women who have had the same relation to the physical spaces as I’ve had. But we also work with younger women so that the setting becomes a platform for the creation of new memories and understandings.”

The Fairfield University Art Museum will showcase her work in the solo exhibition “By Design: Theater and Fashion in the Photography of Lalla Essaydi,” which will highlight the artistic process behind the creation of the artist’s carefully staged photographs, on view between Jan. 29 and May 21.

“I hope people will be able to see that Arab women are having trouble with both worlds, Arab and Western,” Essaydi said. “The Orientalist narrative is being projected on them from both directions. They are either weak and in need of rescue or jezebels who need to be brought under control.

“In my photographs, I try to clear away these projections so that — here is my hope — they can be seen as the powerful presences in their own right.”

She describes her work as documenting her own experience growing up as an Arab woman within Islamic culture, spending her childhood and adolescence in Morocco and living as an adult in Saudi Arabia for many years.

“All of it helped me gain a great understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture,” Essaydi said. “In my photography, I explore this space, whether mental or physical, and interrogate its role in gender identity making, while engaging with centuries of cultural heritage and artistic practices.”

Now living between New York and Morocco, Essaydi has also lived in Saudi Arabia and studied drawing and painting at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and photography at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

“Her experiences traversing different countries and cultures has inspired her work and have given her a unique perspective,” said Cynthia Becker, the guest curator of the exhibit.

“Also, she confronts Western stereotypes of Muslim women and recounts her own experiences growing up in Morocco. Her work tells a complex and nuanced story of Moroccan women’s lives.”

In total, 22 photographs will be in the exhibit. The artist’s work strives to break down stereotypes that people in the United States might have about Muslim women as she confronts these stereotypes in order to show women’s agency.

Becker noted that Essaydi is aware the complex relationship between cultures often leads to misunderstanding and misinterpretation, and she confronts this idea in her photography.

“This exhibition takes a unique approach, as it highlights the design process behind the creation of Essaydi’s carefully staged photographs,” she said. “It specifically concentrates on how her work crosses into theater and fashion. I also make a special effort to contextualize her work within Moroccan history and culture.”

For instance, in the photograph titled “Bullets #6,” she noted Essaydi crafted a richly detailed scene of highly ornate tiles, woodwork and clothing out of used bullet shells.

“In these glittering photographs, Essaydi comments on the violence that many in the United States and Europe associate with contemporary Middle Eastern and North African countries,” Becker said.

“Ironically, Essaydi transformed bullets into sparkling garments and intricate backdrops so that they are no longer recognizable as weaponry, illustrating once again the tension inherent in her work that makes it so compelling.”

As an Arab artist living in the West, Essaydi noted, she has been granted an extraordinary perspective from which to observe both cultures, and has also been imprinted by these cultures.

“In a sense, I feel I inhabit, and perhaps even embody, a crossroads, where the cultures come together — merge, interweave and sometimes clash,” she said. “As an artist, I am inhabiting not only a geo-cultural terrain, but also an imaginative one.

“This space continues to define itself, to unfold and evolve, and as an artist I feel it is my job — and my passion — to try and understand it, and to make work that flows from this continuing investigation.”

Therefore, each series she does is conceived of as a book, in which the women have become pages and chapters, thus the segmentation of images.

“Sometimes the segmentation is to emphasize a particular theme, such as the presentation of three stages of a woman’s life, and the association of the veil with a woman’s coming of age. I have used a triptych to elongate the body so as to exaggerate the pose of a reclining figure,” she said.

As people view her work in the exhibit, Essaydi hopes they become sensitized to the voyeuristic, sexualized gaze of the Western Orientalist painters, but at the same time be enthralled with the authentic beauty of the culture these artists encountered in North Africa.

“Everywhere—in architecture, in the decorative surfaces of spaces, on furniture and women’s clothing — they found and recorded a world of exquisite beauty, quite in contrast with the drab bourgeois world these men left behind them in Europe,” she said.

“It is this beauty I wish to reclaim. But to do so is tricky because such beauty is also dangerous. It is what lures the viewer into accepting the Orientalist fantasies of women as sexual slaves — in harems and in the slave markets.

“My challenge has been to try to separate the beauty of the cultural surround from that of the women themselves, so seeming passive and receptive, so eerily like the furniture and the welcoming spaces.”

The exhibition will open with an online lecture by Becker on Jan. 28 and will be located in the museum’s Walsh Gallery in the Quick Center for the Arts and accessible through the museum’s website as a 3-D virtual tour as well as an audio guide.

Keith Loria is a freelance writer.