“My message would be: Arab women are not so much oppressed as the Western World thinks. We are women incredibly engaged in our lives, to have a better life,”artist Lalla Essaydi said Tuesday, as she toured her exhibit, “Lalla Essaydi: Revisions,” which opened Wednesday at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

View Photo Gallery: Lalla Essaydi, whose portraits of women in Islamic cultures appear in a new exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, questions the barriers imposed on Arab women and pushes back against stereotypical Western depictions of them.

Essaydi, who was born in a harem in Morocco and has gained international fame for her photography of women in Islamic cultures, told a crowd at a press preview that her work is autobiographical and is intended to confront Western stereotypes of women in those cultures.

“I am trying to make clear the role of the Moroccan woman and the role of the Muslim woman in the sense [that] we are not just confined and sitting in one corner,” Essaydi said. “It becomes my duty and my passion, at the same time, to show another facet of the real Arab woman to the Western world and to the world in general.

“We are very strong ….We have our own personality, on our own. We want to be seen like that. We don’t want the projection of the Western world or the Islamic culture to be projected on us from both sides. We want to be seen as human beings.”

Essaydi stood before a photograph of herself, draped in white fabric, immersed in calligraphy inscribed in henna. “My work,” she said, “is really my history.”

Lalla Essaydi’s "Converging Territories #10," 2003, chromogenic print mounted on aluminum. (Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses,” Essaydi says, “as an artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.”

  Johnnetta Betsch Cole, director of the National Museum of African Art, said “Revisions” is an important show for the museum. Essaydi’s work, Cole said, confronts “deeply entrenched historical notions about femininity and womanhood through images of the Muslim world.”



Essaydi “encourages us to interrogate,” Cole said. “We must pose and respond to questions about space, place, gender and identity.”

The exhibit, which includes photographs of women draped in fabric inscribed with Arabic calligraphy, chronicles Essaydi’s work as an artist, a photographer, painter and filmmaker pushing the traditional boundaries imposed on Arab, Muslim and African women. Her work, Essaydi says, “questions the spaces to which women are traditionally confined.”

Lalla Essaydi’s "Silence of Thought #5," 2003, chromogenic print mounted between Plexiglas and Sintra. (Courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York)

The show features work drawn from her photographic series, including “Silence of Thought,” “Converging Territories” and “Les Femmes De Maroc.”

“It’s about past colonialism and independence,” Essaydi told the crowd. “It is about women, by a woman and toward women. It is about freedom, constrained and controlled…. It is about space within, between, about… It is more than art to me. It is my testimony. ”

Essaydi is scheduled to discuss her work with Kinsey Katchka, guest curator for “Lalla Essaydi: Revisions,” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, May 10, at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW. Doors for the “Artist Talk” open at 5:30 p.m.; the exhibition gallery will be open until 8 p.m.

“Lalla Essaydi: Revisions” runs May 9 through Feb. 24, at the National Museum of African Art, 950 Independence Ave. SW, 202-633-4600. www.nmafa.si.edu.