The young girl growing up in a harem in Morocco is sitting alone in an abandoned house surrounded by olive trees. For one month, the girl will speak to no one and be spoken to by no one. This is her punishment for “stepping outside the permissible space” and rebelling against rules that give her brothers more freedom.
Confined to this lovely but deteriorating house, attended only by servants, a young Lalla Essaydi begins to think about the private spaces that women in the Arab world must inhabit. It is this place of punishment to which Essaydi will return decades later to understand the artist she has become. Her work, she says, will become haunted by spaces she inhabited as a child.
Essaydi, who has risen to international fame for her stunning portraits of women in Islamic cultures, questions the barriers imposed on Arab women and challenges stereotypical Western depictions of women who live in harems.
Her series “Harem” is set in a palace in Marrakesh. “The palace is decorated with stucco, mosaic tile and stained glass,” Essaydi says. “The harem itself is located at its very heart, behind a labyrinthine network of corridors and massive doors.
“Even now, one can sense its oppressive atmosphere of isolation and concealment. . . . I spent some time there, trying to imagine how the women felt who were consigned to this space, the loneliness, companionship and solidarity they shared. They were indeed sisters in the harem, hidden away as if some shameful secret were involved.”
Her photographs are included in the exhibition “Lalla Essaydi: Revisions,” which opens Wednesday and runs through Feb. 24 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.
In one photograph, a woman lies on a divan, reclining like an odalisque in a painting in the tradition of 19th-century European Orientalists. But the woman is immersed in Arabic calligraphy that has been carefully written with sepia henna dye. The script covers the fabric, the bed, the woman’s dress, her face, her body, absorbing her within the space to which she is confined.
“The women are so colorful that they dissolve into the space, yet they engage the viewers, almost mockingly, as if daring them to take what they see seriously,” Essaydi says.
In Orientalism, “beauty is quite dangerous, as it lures the viewer into accepting the fantasy,” Essaydi continues. “I want to expose the distortions these paintings present and provoke the viewer into a different kind of seeing, one that shapes a new understanding.”
Kinsey Katchka, guest curator at the National Museum of African Art, says there is a serenity and elegance in Essaydi’s work. “There are many layers, literally, in terms of skin, cloth and architecture,” Katchka says. “But also there is a great deal of conceptual layering in her work. It is full of contradiction and conflicting perspectives.”
The henna writing in Essaydi’s photos, Katchka says, is particularly extraordinary. “It is painstaking work. When you look at the expansive cloth, the background, the bodies, and imagine the time it takes to write that by hand, it is really remarkable.”
Essaydi repeats the stereotypes of the Orientalists in an attempt to defuse them. She then twists them by contorting the women’s trappings, capturing their direct gaze and giving voice to the women with poetry and calligraphy, which are considered high art forms controlled by men.
Men, for the most part, are absent from the show, which is deliberate. It is the lives of women that intrigue Essaydi.
“These women have become literal odalisques — ‘odalisque,’ from the Turkish, means ‘belonging to a place,’ ” she says. “One has only to look at the continuity between the henna on their bodies and the patterns of the surrounding tiles to see how they have become identified with their surroundings.”
A harem, Essaydi, 53, explains from her home in New York, is nothing like the fictional depictions in Orientalist portraits. “For someone really born in a harem, how life is depicted in those paintings is ridiculous — all the naked women lying down all day long,” Essaydi says. In the harem, “everybody had a chore to do. I had many sisters and brothers. It was all family oriented. It is nothing like that fantasy. I can’t imagine my mother or mothers walking around naked.”
Essaydi’s father, who owned olive groves and was a leader of a small city, was said to be a direct descendant of the prophet Muhammad. He had 11 children and four wives. Essaydi’s mother was the youngest wife.
When her father was alive, she says, her mother would cover her face. “She would not go into the streets,” she says. “They would travel at night with tinted windows.”
Despite such traditions, Essaydi says, “I could not accept to be treated different from my brothers. My sisters and cousins, we would at certain times revolt.”
When Essaydi was 16, she left Morocco to attend high school in Paris. In her early 20s, she returned to her home country, where she met and married her husband, a civil servant. They moved to Saudi Arabia. Though her marriage lasted six years, she remained there 13 more years, living in a separate home with her two children.
In the early 1990s, she returned to Paris to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was in an art history class that she first encountered Western artists’ fantasies of life in a harem. “My fascination started then and there,” she says.
Those paintings included Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’s iconic “The Great Odalisque,” which was painted in 1819. Other works that intrigued Essaydi were those by Jean-Leon Gerome, Frederic Leighton, John Singer Sargent and Eugene Delacroix, who painted “Algerian Women in Their Apartment” in 1834, showing Arab women as slaves in an exotic harem.
Essaydi thought the Orientalist paintings were exquisitely done, “but so problematic. They were small paintings used like Playboy magazine. It was easy to take them one place or another or to hide them in private places.”
The women, she says, were “never seen as human beings on their own.”
The paintings led Essaydi to start an “investigation in Orientalism” and of the way Arab women were depicted by Western artists.
In 1996, Essaydi moved to Boston, “for schools for my children.” She continued her studies and in 2003 received an MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts. Distance from her homeland gave her a new perspective.
Essadyi’s visits to Morocco resulted in her series “Converging Territories,” in which women are depicted wrapped in veils and covered in henna calligraphy, an art she taught herself. Some of the photographs were taken in the house to which she had been sent for punishment as child.
Essaydi, who spends months preparing photo shoots, often uses family friends as models. The application of the henna, using a syringe, is arduous. It can take nine hours “and cannot be interrupted. The models are unable to rest.”
The models endure “because they feel they are contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women and at the same time conveying to a Western audience a very rich tradition often misunderstood in the West,” she says. “They see themselves as part of a small feminist movement.”
In the photographs, the calligraphy follows the folds of the women’s clothes, dips into crevices, begins in one room and ends in another. It is only partially legible to those who read Arabic, telling only the part of Essaydi’s story that she allows to be read.
“Whatever I write is written in a poetic way,” she says. “It is public but private; even if they read it, it is not literal. It could apply to anyone or any person.”
Essaydi is uncomfortable with the notion that her work may be construed as a representation of all Arab women. “I am much too aware of the range of traditions and laws among the different Arab nations to presume to speak for every one,” she says. Though she knows that her art might anger some people, she welcomes that reaction. What she wouldn’t want is for people to dismiss it. “It is a little bit of my soul in there,” she says.
In a translation of the Arabic calligraphy, Essaydi gives a glimpse into her journey. She writes: “I am dreaming about freedom and don’t know how to talk about it. I am staring at the book and not sure what language I am supposed to speak. When a book is translated, it loses something in the process and what am I but generations of translations? I stand guilty outside and I stand guilty inside, profoundly buried in my translation, panting behind the words that are carried along by vital forces far greater than my own. I am a book that has no ending. Each page I write could be the first.”
May 9-Feb. 24, National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, 202-633-4600. www.nmafa.si.edu.