Profile: Lalla Essaydi

Converging Territories series #24. All images copyright and courtesy of Lalla Essaydi

HAVING GROWN UP in Morocco, lived in Saudi Arabia, which was then followed by studies in France and the US, Lalla Essaydi finds herself in a unique position to create work about women in the Arab world. Relying on Orientalist paintings as her starting point, she stages large scale photographs that deconstruct these Orientalist paintings challenging the viewer’s perceptions about women in the Arab world. Today, based between New York and Morocco, Lalla Essaydi tells her story through her photographs using traditional cultural objects, such as henna, the veil, often portrayed in a closed space, these images go beyond the distorted and often degrading view that often prevails in regards to women in the Arab world in the West. In the following interview, Lalla Essaydi (b. 1956 in Morocco) discusses her work and her practice with the Asian Art Newspaper.

BY OLIVIA SAND

Asian Art Newspaper: You are primarily known as a photographer, but you are also a painter, as well as an installation and video artist. Do you still use all these various media?
Lalla Essaydi: I will always think of myself as a painter, even when I am working with photography, because the nature of using henna is like using a painting brush. There is this kind of intimacy with the work itself that I find in painting. I still paint because my photography is actually informed from my painting, and vice versa. I do my sketches using paint, as I draw and I paint it usually ends up being a photograph, but it still goes through that process of the painting.

AAN: Do you exhibit thepaintings in conjunction with the photographs?
LE: I did in the past. As I work from Orientalist paintings, most of the time my work is influenced by that and, for the paintings themselves, I appropriate imagery from Orientalist paintings. I also appropriate the style which is very hyper-realistic, so it takes a very long time to finish. My paintings are large scale compared to the original Orientalist paintings, and it can take up to six months to do just one painting. It can be a little bit frustrating, but my work is all process-oriented – be this in photography or in painting. I do a photo-shoot once a year since the preparation time is long and involves a lot of writing. It is a great amount of work before having the result that I want in the photograph.

AAN: In the course of your curriculum, at what stage did you come across the Orientalist paintings, and when did you decide to address the vision the West often has about a country like Morocco and the relation to Orientalist paintings?
LE: First of all, let me make clear that although I went to school in France, I did not take a degree there, I was in further education. I used to go during the summer, spending my time taking courses and in winter when I was there, I went to night school. Of course, I always knew about the Orientalist paintings from the past. I found them beautiful and I loved them, but I always found it problematic to see all these women naked. I knew it was a fantasy, because I grew up in the women’s quarters in an Arab country. I do not relate to these images at all, neither do I see my mother, or my aunt, or women of my family having that kind of household. I just assumed that everybody knew that it was a fantasy. Then, when I went to the US and I started studying at university and talking with people who specialise in Orientalism, I started to see a trend that seemed to say a lot of people believed that this is exactly what life is like in our culture. It is so wrong, especially when they think that women are just being sequestered in a quarter for a man’s pleasure. It started that way, but now they must surely think of us differently. However, the naked women is now replaced by the image of oppressed women, these helpless women that needed rescuing. That really has become a trend for me. Seeing what was happening, I knew that I have to understand my own culture, I had to go back, study again and see what is wrong with these images and how they imprinted themselves so vividly on other people’s way of viewing the Arab society. This is how I started working with Islamic art. It was very clear the path I needed to take.

AAN: Where do you usually shoot the photographs ?
LE: For the last three years, I have been shooting in Morocco for the simple reason that in the past, I shot in a house that belonged to my family. Meanwhile, they have allowed me to build my studio within this facility. Consequently, I have a large studio in Morocco with the result that I also have more access to the women with whom I work. So it is easier for me to do the photo-shoots in Morocco. However, I also work in the US, where I do a lot of writing, or at least get started on some of my projects. When I was working with the bullet shells for the Bullet series,
I bought them in the US, where I cut them, sewed and wove them together before bringing them to Morocco in pieces because they are very heavy. To give you an idea, one or two suitcases would be like 60 pounds of metal. Also, I brought them in the US for the simple reason that I cannot find them in Morocco. Once in Morocco, I hire people, hunters for example, who can buy some bullets. They go, fire them, bring them to me, and then we cut them and I do the background with these shells. It is a long process. This is why the Bullet series has been ongoing for almost five years now and I am still working on it, because it takes such a long time to produce, before even starting to think of the photograph itself.

AAN: What is the background of the women with whom you are working in Morocco ?
LE: I work with women from my family, who have a similar experience to myself. I work in an area and a space – this old house – that carries a lot of memories. We work using these memories and also we create new memories for the younger women. The family space is very crucial to my work, as well as to the women that participate, because it is a collaboration. I do all the preparation, but they have to agree to every single thing that I am doing, they participate and give me their ideas. Otherwise, it would not work for me. That is why part of Les femmes du Maroc was shot in Boston, where I have another studio. Because I lived in Boston, went to school there, taught there, over time I met some Moroccan women there and over the years I engaged them to collaborate with me. In addition
we have the same experience – being from Morocco and living in a diaspora. I am fully engaged with Islamic art and our experiences either in Morocco, or in the US, pull us together. This point is very important to my work. I live in New York, but I do not shoot in New York, because it is so difficult to bring so many women together, as some of them are studying, some are working and it is just very hard to gather people for a few days to get the job done. In that respect, life is a little bit easier in Morocco than in the US.

AAN: When you say you also want to create new memories for the younger women, is their experience of what you are presenting in your photographs radically different?
LE: Absolutely. I remember growing up that my grand father was married several times and had younger wives. His children are my age and we grew up with my aunts, uncles, and cousins. We are just such a large family. Back then, the traditions and life in Morocco were so very different, especially for women. We did not have the freedom that the young generation has and, at the same time, we want them to understand that these traditions are not always a negative thing. It is very important that they know their history and that where they are now did not come just out of the blue. We had to work in order to make it a little better for their generation. Also, I find that now the young ones look up to me for the simple reason that I was married, and I had my kids and I was a full-time housewife. When my kids were grown up, I did not stop there since I had to keep up and to be at the same level of education as them. I just wanted to do something different with my life. There are phases in life that are almost like consecutive chapters, from one to the next. I wanted to show the possibilities at my age of going to university with my kids, studying with my daughter and then having a career just after having had my life as a house-wife. They look up to me as they can see that there are also possibilities for them, that it is up to them to change their life and to have the kind of life they want.

AAN: Have you ever appeared in your own work?
LE: Actually, I did appear in two pictures in the beginning. They were shot in Morocco and it was endless because simultaneously I had to be behind the camera, I had to be the model, and I had to be the director … It took forever. At that time, I did not have an assistant. I have many people helping me around just carrying things, but lately, I have a technician with me as it is extremely intense when I am working: I have to write on the women, I have to dress them, they have to be standing up, waiting for hours and hours. Then, all these women are staying in one place for the period I am shooting. Before I start shooting, comes a part of the process of which I am very fond, when everyone gathers together: can you imagine having 20, or 30 women in one place? They are all friends from the same family, living in one place for a week or 10 days. That experience in itself is amazing!

AAN: Earlier, you mentioned the henna you apply on the fabrics, or on the women themselves. How did you come to use henna instead of taking the photograph and then applying ink for example?
LE: As you know, my work is process-oriented. I spend a lot of time with the work itself and once the work is finished, it has a life of its own and I move on to something else. This is very important, but at the same time, every single thing in my work is accounted for, meaning that I am using henna because the henna is such a huge element in the life of Moroccan women: we use it in celebration for the wedding, when the woman gets through puberty, or when she has a child. It is such a great part of our tradition as women in this culture! I wanted a feminine visual language and use it with calligraphy that is considered ‘male art’, because ‘male art’ is considered ‘high art’. My work is not really calligraphy. This is an intake in calligraphy because calligraphy, as you know, has schools and you have to spend years and years training to become skilled. This is why poetry, calligraphy, and architecture in Islamic art are considered ‘high art’ and therefore, for me it is more a masculine art. I needed something typically feminine that we relate to so strongly in this culture and then fuse it together with ‘male art’. This is what I am trying to do. Also, the written text, the models, the walls – everything is written in prose, which is their story as well as mine, but it is written in a poetic way so that it becomes universal and can be applied to any women in the world. To me, this is another way I am appropriating poetry from a male art, as well as calligraphy, and using henna to bind the arts together. That is why everything in my work is planned and has a meaning, if not for the viewer, then at least for me.

AAN: Painting the henna on womens’ skin sounds like a challenge.
LE: Generally speaking, the henna stains. However, I can put it on the women’s body where the skin is different and the henna would not stain. As for the face, I put a plant that looks like henna, that almost smells like henna, but it does not stain and soak into the skin. As much as I wanted to use henna and avoid anything fake, I could not use it on the face as it lasts for weeks: the women cannot go out with text written on their face. For the rest of the body, I used henna directly. We discussed it to a great length together with the women and they agreed with me that the henna was necessary. Henna is such an important element!

AAN: The text sometimes seems blurred on the face. For people reading Arabic, can one decipher a meaning from what is written on the face, or on the fabric?
LE: It is deliberately made not to be readable. Not because I do not want people to understand what I am writing, although I even make a translation of the writing. Somebody requested it in the past, so I translated about three or four paragraphs into English so people can understand. It is done deliberately: I write small and then I write on top of it and when the henna dries, it changes shapes as well. I want people to appreciate the text like a visual language an image, like other images in the picture, like the woman herself. When you look at these Orientalist paintings, there are all these draperies, all these props that are very colourful and that is what makes the painting so lush and so beautiful. I removed all that, but I needed to put in a voice. My image is therefore decorated with their own voices instead of all that colourful drapery and objects around them.

AAN: You have completed four major series: Converging Territories; Les Femmes du Maroc; Harem; and Bullet. Are all of them ongoing?
LE: I think of my work as being one single project and I am still working on these series. I was seeing a trend in the Orientalist paintings which featured three very important elements: physically, they deal with the veil; they deal mostly with the odalisk, with women; and with the space itself, the harem. So I started every series taking one of these elements. Converging Territories dealt with the veil, then Les femmes du Maroc is about the odalisk. There are many triptychs, because the women are too elongated. I do everything to present them as it is, about the pose, about the women. Of course, this is just a visual thing, but behind it there is a lot more, there is the writing for example. With Converging Territories, it is the veil that is important, it is about how we are seen by the Western world, but it is also how we see each other. It is also based on my own history and is biographical. It has all these elements to it and there are many layers to my work. We cannot just say that it is just about Orientalist paintings and how they portray it. Actually, what Orientalism did is really give me a lens through which I can focus on my own personal history. A lot of times, my work is based on that. It is my history, it is a journey about identity, about understanding, about learning, about trying to make a change.

AAN: How did the Bullet series come about?
LE: I live in a contemporary world and I have to face what is happening around me. The Arab Spring was behind this series. I saw women at the forefront of everything happening and making a difference. They were brave and it was thrilling. Then, you have all these conservative governments in power and the role of women was just 20 years backwards. It is heartbreaking to see that. Also, at the same time, I was seeing women being raped while they were fighting. That was horrible. This is the first time that I knew I had to use a language that alludes directly to violence, because if you look at my history and at the work I do, everything is very subtle: you really have to think and look at my work to understand what I am trying to do and what I am saying. In this series you look at it and, as it is really projected on women, it is violence to women. It is literally right there in your face. I think the situation needed something like this series. It is the only thing I can do to help. I wanted to go to these places and gather these bullets that were there. I know it is not going to help in any other way so I turned the frustration and everything into my work. I felt it to the bone and what came from it is the Bullet series, with its implications of violence.

AAN: Regarding the Harem series, what type of fabrics were you using and what were the backgrounds?
LE: The Harem series took a long time to produce. The first ones using the architecture were shot in a palace in Morocco in the women’s quarters, in the harem. It is actually the action space and what I did is I photographed the walls and printed the image on fabric, made traditional costumes from for the women. Then, I took the picture in the space again. This is why you can see them wearing the same fabric as the walls: they embody the space itself. That is what I wanted for this series – the space itself to mean something. Towards the end, I used a collection of old kaftans from the same period as the Orientalist paintings. If you study them, they really look like the paintings themselves. They are so lush, I also used similar props as the ones in the Orientalist paintings in the photograph.

AAN: I understand you recently completed a new series ?
LE: I actually completed a series last summer that is now on view in London for the first time. It is a continuation of the Bullet series. Now there are so many more bullets! This time, I made traditional clothes from bullets. I weaved them together. It is such a process, but every time I am working, I am learning. Therefore, I keep pushing myself to make it better, to do it differently. I found a different way working with bullets allowing me to make other things from it like traditional costumes, kaftans or capes with the result that women are completely dressed in the fabric.

AAN: When completing your photographs, do you rely on any retouching?
LE: No, absolutely not. All the retouching is done on the models, on the set, but nothing is done on my work. I work with large formats, which you can see on the paper.
I pride myself with the fact that my work has absolutely no manipulation. Even in the darkroom when we are printing the paper, the largest images are printed in a darkroom in a traditional way. In a darkroom, every time you print, you have to go through the same process again and again which is very difficult. It is that hands-on thing that I love. And the quality of something that you actually print in a darkroom is so much better because it does not matter how far you go with the large format negative. However, if you scan it, it flattens the image and this simply doesn’t work for my photographs.

AAN: How do younger women in the Arab world respond to your work?
LE: They like the work a lot. It brings a dialogue and that is what
I am looking for from both cultures either the Western world or the Arab world. I like to have a dialogue with people. This work is based on my personal history and it is autobiographical. I do not represent all the Arab women. Each one has a different experience within my own culture, let alone the other Arab cultures. It would be doing the same thing as these Orientalists are doing by putting all the women into one category, which is not the case. This is why it is about Moroccan women, it is about me, about women in my family, about women who had the same experiences, about Arab women in general. Clearly, there is a dialogue and there are differences. The work makes it possible to talk about those differences and similarities.

AAN: Have you ever had women from the Arab world, or elsewhere, criticising your work because you are presenting the Arab woman exactly the way they do not want to be represented (with a veil, in a closed space …) ?
LE: As an artist, you have to keep explaining to people because not everybody studied art history, not everybody understands. It is not that they are ignorant, it is simply not their field. So they may not be able to understand the kind of work that I do because it is all metaphors, there are all symbols. The worst thing is that I am using the same stereotypes to criticise those Orientalist paintings. Of course, I do face some resistance sometimes and I will face some contradictions. I think this is why
I agree to give lectures, to give interviews in order to try and make it possible for people not to reject the work, but to try to understand it. As I said, there are so many layers to my work. Most of the time, I seem to be catering to the Orientalist paintings, but in fact, I am trying to criticise them, but in a very subtle way. I am an artist. The work has to be beautiful because that is what attracts you to art in the first place. I need that kind of connection with people to be able to talk about it, to be able to explain. Then, of course, sometimes people do not understand it, but if I can just have their attention and the dialogue with just 40%, or just even 10%, that is a huge step forward already in trying to have a dialogue. A lot of times, I look at things myself and I do not appreciate them. However, it is the things that I do not appreciate that stay with me, that nag me, these are the things that make me think and that make me want to go back and learn more about it. Good art has to have substance, has to have aesthetics, it has to have all these kinds of things to make people want to engage.

AAN The West has become very curious to learn more about the Arab world. Generally speaking, how accurate do you find the way the West is portraying the Arab woman now?
LE: One thing I can tell you is that I visited many Arab countries, I know many women from different Arab cultures and the image that the West portrays about them is so wrong! Women are so powerful! I take myself as an example. I am from an Arab country, I have always been engaged in doing more than just having kids and being a housewife. I see women in my family, I see women in my friends: they are well educated, they are cosmopolitan, and they are fighting every day for their life, for their freedom and for their identity. The difference is that our cultures are different from the West. We have to do it our own way. That is the difference. We are not seen, we are very discreet, we have to because that is what happens when you live in a world like our society. However, women are extremely active. They are very powerful, and they are really wonderful. It is very bad that the West condemns the women just as being helpless. They need to just look and see all the woman that are behind the men. They are working hard and they make a difference in their culture.

AAN: In one of your earlier quotes, you refer to yourself as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. How do you bring all these elements together?
LE: These elements are me. They are what make me and they are my life. All too often when talking about women, they are defined by one thing when actually my life is so many things. When you look at these paintings, they were defined by being just women pleasing a man, or now we are just oppressed wearing a veil, or having to deal with the fact of just being obedient. When you are made of all these things together, it just defies those ideas that women are just oppressed and accepting their role.

Lalla Essaydi’s work is presentlyon view in Lalla Essaydi: Photographs 2005-13 at the San Diego Museum of Art, California, until 4 August, www.sdmart.org