Lalla Essaydi: A New Gaze @Edwynn Houk

JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 large scale color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against cream and red walls in the main gallery space and the entry area. All of the works are chromogenic prints, made between 2003 and 2013. Physical sizes range from 20×24 to 48×60 inches (or the reverse) and the prints are available in editions of 10+5AP, 15+5AP, or 36. (Installation and detail shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the past handful of years, the art world has begun a long overdue process of internal reassessment, with a hard look being taken at the priorities previously being advocated and the kinds of stories that were (and weren’t) being told. As a practical matter, this means that galleries, museums, and collectors are now actively (and energetically) looking back into the arc of art history for artists who were overlooked or marginalized the first time around, in an effort to deliberately rebalance the scales away from the obvious parade of straight white Western men that has dominated the dialogue for centuries. This has led to the “rediscovery” (a loaded and often vaguely insulting term to be sure) of a diverse selection of somewhat lesser known artists, including women, people of color, and those with a more fluid and wider range of sexual orientations. The shift in prevailing interests has been remarkably swift, and galleries and museums have been moving rapidly to recalibrate their offerings to feature art that better matches the mood of the moment.

For those looking to rebalance and expand their photography holdings, Lalla Essaydi’s work checks a lot of boxes. Essaydi is a female photographer, born in Morocco and trained in the US, who has built a successful artistic practice making images of women that smartly push against the Orientalist stereotypes of harems, and of Islamic women more generally. Essaydi came onto the photography scene in the early 2000s, and found a wider audience in the late 2000s and early 2010s via a succession of iterative projects, each building on the last and pushing her unique aesthetic forward. A 2013 gallery show (reviewed here) provided a sampler of her various efforts, further cementing the established narrative around her work and its ideas.

Interestingly, Essaydi has fallen off the photographic map a little in recent years, mostly because she seems to have stopped producing new work. Her last active project appears to have finished up in 2015, and this show similarly offers no new images, with the most recent works on view here from 2013. So there is a bit of a time capsule feel to this exhibit, in that it reprises earlier shows with remarkable fidelity, without updating us on her more recent activities. This doesn’t in any way diminish the quality of the work, its larger importance, or its increased relevance at the moment; Essaydi’s best images certainly deserve a second look and a new round of recognition. The absence of new work simply raises questions about what we’ve been missing.

Essaydi’s earliest images (from the series Converging Territories) introduce her innovative use of all-over Arabic calligraphy, where hand painted words and phrases cover faces, bodies, fabrics, and walls, creating edge-to-edge environments enveloped by script. The palette of these images is generally white and brown, with white backdrops and flowing robes covered with calligraphy, and only eyes peeking out from behind veils. Two strong works from the series offer a triad of penetrating stares, and a progression of heights and ages, with (in the second picture) the mother completely covered by clothing and each successive daughter slightly more visible. As the elemental place where Essaydi started, these works represent the simplest essence of her vision, the restrictions placed on these women given stylized visual form.

In subsequent years, Essaydi expanded this motif and applied it to stereotypical visions of harem life drawn from 19th century Orientalist works made by Europeans. Three works on view here dig into these themes: one capturing the seductive smoke from ambergris incense, a second re-imagining the reclining over-the-shoulder pose of Ingres’s Grand Odalisque, and a third featuring a young woman lounging in an intimate curtained alcove, her long dark hair spilling over the edge of the bed on which she waits. Again, all of the surfaces in these images are covered with calligraphy, including the skin of the models, so the resulting setups have a tactile overlay that smothers everything, further upending the exotic otherness such scenes were meant to celebrate.

A few years later, Essaydi revisited these harem ideas, replacing the pared-down monochrome color scheme with richly colored and patterned fabrics and limiting the calligraphic overlay to just the exposed skin of faces, hands, and feet. The resulting photographs are densely patterned with Islamic motifs, tilework, and architectural details in almost excessively opulent ways, but the stark expressions on the faces of the women reveal these fineries to be gilded cages; set like playthings amid the shimmering silks and intricately geometric tiles, these women are trapped, but still fiercely unimpressed.

Once Essaydi opened the door to the visual power of these luxurious Islamic textures, she had to invent new ways to intentionally disrupt the splendor, and her Bullets (and the related Bullets Revisited) series was a potent answer to this challenge. Like El Anatsui and his undulating fabrics made from scavenged bottle tops, Essaydi has woven brass shell casings into elaborate golden textiles and installations that mimic patterned tilework. Her images use these shimmering surfaces to surround the harem models, adding a layer of implied violence to the richly feminine scenes. In the single image from the two series on view here, a single women sits on the floor surrounded by the shiny puddle of her shell casing dress, seemingly entranced by the patterned wall which is similarly built from such bullets; whether she is building or disassembling her elaborate cage is left for the viewer to decide.

Essaydi’s works feel well positioned to find a broader following in the more diverse art world that is now being constructed (or re-constructed.) And while this show doesn’t really provide any new information for those that already know and appreciate her work, it’s obvious that this re-introduction effort is aimed at an audience that may have missed her significance previously. Since none of us can hope to know everything about even the narrower world of photography, new-to-me and now-I-understand are still entirely valid impulses for getting excited about an artwork. A re-acquaintance sampler show like this one can be a useful catalyst for expanding the reach of an artist like Essaydi, especially when her images fall so neatly into the more inclusive view of contemporary art that is now gathering momentum.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced between $10000 and $38000, based on size. Essaydi’s photographs are intermittently available in the secondary markets, with recent prices ranging from roughly $5000 and $60000.

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