For followers of women's rights in the Arab world, the headlines of the past few months have been bitterly disappointing. "Women Among the Biggest Losers in Arab Spring," announced one recent news story, while another shouted, "Why does the world ignore violence against Arab women in public spaces?" The question is vexing because of the prominent role that women played in the Arab Spring revolutions that transformed the Middle East. Lalla Essaydi sees those headlines and recoils, but as a prominent artist from the Arab world who now lives in the United States, she can make photos that seem an emphatic antidote to the news from Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen.
The women in Essaydi's panoramas are safe and well-off. No men are ever seen. No violence is ever apparent. But in Essaydi's newest work, on display at San Francisco's Jenkins Johnson Gallery, bullet casings are everywhere. On the walls. On the beds. Even in the clothing the women wear. At first glance, the shells resemble gold and bronze jewels that form beautiful, glistening sheaths. But of course, the shells were made to be fired, to kill. On these women, the shells become a metaphor for an odd new reality in Arab countries.
"Women have been at the forefront of the uprising in the Arab world, and we thought and were really happy that roles were starting to change for women, but unfortunately, no one was expecting the more conservative governments to take over in most of these Arab areas, and women have been subordinated anew," Essaydi says in a phone interview from New York. "For me and other Arab women, it's very frightening. So my only way of helping is to show a little bit of that fear. And to show the role these women are in right now. It's frustrating, because I can't do more than what I'm doing."
Essaydi's two new photo series, "Bullets Revisited" and "Harem Revisited," are named after earlier series that also dissected the role of women in Arab society. Like those series, Essaydi's new images were photographed in Morocco, where Essaydi grew up. And like those earlier series, Essaydi's new series have models posing with illegible, faux-Islamic calligraphy on their faces, arms, and feet. When Essaydi first started creating her women-oriented photographs 14 years ago, she used her parents' home in Marrakech, the Moroccan city of medieval houses and narrow byways, for the shoots. But she didn't tell her parents. In those days, her project was a secret, and during the nighttime shoots she'd cover the windows to keep the photographic light from seeping out. Portraying Arab women with Islamic writing on their skin (faux or not) might be deemed heretical in conservative Arab circles, and Essaydi was afraid her images would get the models in trouble and put her family at risk — even though Essaydi says her images are a corrective to stereotypes that have plagued Arab women for centuries.
Essaydi's "Harem" series, for example, plays with the motifs prevalent in European paintings of the 18th and 19th centuries that depicted young Muslim women either semi-clad or completely nude, seemingly ready for sex. The word "harem" still conjures up images of conditions akin to a brothel, where young Muslim women are at the beck and call of their male masters. The reality, says Essaydi, who was born into a harem (her dad had four wives), is that the conditions are often "normal" for women, who — in their private settings — are busy working or trying to relax with their children and other family members. The women in Essaydi's "Harem" photos resemble the young women of Essaydi's youth in Marrakech. By showing them with invented calligraphy on their skin, and by putting them in the same kind of grand interiors as those found in the Orientalist depictions of painters like Adrien Henri Tanoux and Jean-Léon Gérôme, Essaydi takes back motifs that have been appropriated by non-Arab artists. Essaydi's work can be seen on one level as a kind of artistic de-colonizing. Even in 2014, Essaydi still encounters educated people — even academics — who have outdated notions of women's lives in Arab countries and what goes on behind closed doors.
"For me, 'harem' means 'household,' just a large household," says Essaydi, who also lived in Saudi Arabia as a child and is now in her late 50s. "Until my generation, women didn't go out, so most of their lives were behind walls. All of their life happened inside. My father was married to four women. Islam gives them that right. And each wife has children. We were a group of children, with 11 siblings. It's just a large family. The name 'harem' comes from the place where male strangers are not allowed inside. For other families, it's just one couple and a few children, and it's still called 'harem.' 'Harem' means a family home that's private. It's a household with children being sick and mothers working and doing chores."
Essaydi, who has an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University, is one of a spate of women visual artists with roots in Arab or Muslim countries who've emerged in the past 20 years. Shirin Neshat, the filmmaker and photographer who was raised in Iran and now lives in New York, may be the best-known of this emergent class. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, featured the work of Neshat, Essaydi, and 10 other female photographers in a major exhibit that ended last month, "She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers From Iran and the Arab World." Among other artists of note in that exhibit: Rania Matar, a Lebanese-American who portrays young Lebanese women at home in their bedrooms; and Boushra Almutawakel, a Yemeni whose "Hijab/Veil" series spotlights the way Muslim women cover their hair or faces in public.
The women in Essaydi's images are a mix, with many openly displaying their hair and others keeping it wrapped under scarves. The "Bullet" photos are unnerving because they draw you in with their surface beauty before revealing themselves to be intense and troubling. That intensity is magnified when Essaydi reveals the lengths to which she orchestrated the photos. In Morocco, it's illegal for unlicensed gun owners to buy bullets in stores, and she needed thousands of bullets for her series. Essaydi had to get many of the casings in the United States, from firing ranges. She and her assistants then cut them, made holes in them, and weaved them into bigger pieces that Essaydi took with her to Morocco. Orchestrating the new series for more than a year, and taking in the aftermath of the Arab revolutions, has changed Essaydi, she admits.
"I'm not really a militant," says Essaydi, whose new work has been exhibited at art fairs in Arab countries. "I'm an artist. The poetry in art is very important to me. I never used a very provocative visual tableau until this time. This is the most openly political statement. In my work, you usually have to read between the lines. But this work is much more open. You see vocabulary that's used with violence, and violence projected onto women, and it's quite clear what I'm trying to say."