It has been announced that on May 22 Lalla Essaydi will be awarded the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s Medal Award. (A retrospective of her work, “Lalla Essaydi: Revisions,” is currently on view at the National Museum of African Art Smithsonian in Washington.) I feel like it’s some sort of personal triumph. No, I do not know Lalla Essaydi and have obviously played no part in her phenomenal contributions to the art world. However, she is the focus of a disagreement in our household which I like to hold over my husband’s head, so she has become a bit of an obsession. I’m pretty sure I have told this story before, but to revisit, my husband and I saw a photograph by Lalla Essaydi at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s sale a number of years ago. I loved the photograph. There is some disagreement about what the actual price was at the time, but it was under $1,000. We did not buy it, much to my chagrin, because it was too expensive and too large. A few years later we saw the same photograph selling for $18,000. Oops. So there is really nothing more satisfying than proving to my husband what a horrendous mistake it was not to buy the photograph.
Essaydi was born in Marrakech, grew up initially in Morocco, and then spent a number of years living in Saudi Arabia. She creates breathtaking large scale portraits of Muslim women. The story they tell is both beautiful and chilling. To look at them is to be overcome by an incredible stillness.
Essaydi is represented in Boston by the Howard Yezerski Gallery and more of her work can be viewed on the gallery website.
As breathtaking as Essaydi’s work is on it’s own, another intellectual dimension is added when it is seen in counterpoint to the next generation of young artists dealing with identity and Muslim women. Essaydi’s photographs show women, their skin covered in henna calligraphy, both draped in and standing against fabric similarly covered. Her photographs are challenging and take risks. Visually they are actually quite conservative. They are full of contradictions. The women are confined within the borders of the photograph, rendered yet another part of the decoration, disappearing into the world around them. And yet, the thing that draws the women and their surroundings together is calligraphy, traditionally inaccessible to women. The composition of many of the photographs draws on paintings from the 19th c. Western tradition of Orientalism. These women are profoundly both self and other, given voice and silenced, disappearing, and yet in many of the photographs the most powerful and haunting point is the woman’s eyes which stare intently out of the frame. The photographs are both respectful and an act of rebellion.
Over the years, the work of Jowhara AlSaud, born in Saudi Arabia in 1978 and educated in the United States where she now lives, has taken a number of forms. What interest me most are a series of images rendered from photographs which were made as a commentary on censorship in Saudi Arabia. The images begin as photographs of AlSaud’s friends and family. For AlSaud, the artistic process rather than being one of inscription and writing, is one of erasure. The images begin as emotionally charged situations, but as AlSaud develops the images, erasing the faces, emotions and identity of her subject, the work becomes formally akin to cartoons, graphic art, pop styles that are very much part of 20th and 21st c. popular culture. Their deceptive lightness both shuts the viewer out, and masks eerie undertones.
See more work on Jowhara AlSaud’s website. God these women are amazing!