Photographic Alphabet: 'E' is for Lalla Essaydi
By Leah Pfenning
Converging Territories is a photo series conceptualized and executed by Moroccan-born photographer, Lalla Essaydi. The photographs feature Arab women as odalisques, and objects representative of the harem, as they confront the veil of a Western perspective of Orientalism. Borrowing the words of Whitman, the women in this series are large, they contain multitudes, and to wholly appreciate the granduer Essaydi encourages her viewers to dismiss stereotypes when engaging with her work.
Islamic calligraphy written in henna, incomplete about the female experience, marches infinitely throughout the photographs. In the Arab world calligraphy is traditionally an exclusively male-dominated expression, while the use of henna is sole to women. The merging of the two forms as “veil” in a hyper-punctilious weave of personal and political expression is masterful commentary by Essaydi on the fluidity of women in Arab culture.
Essaydi’s focus is the female experience as she comments in her artist statement, “I wish for my work to be as vividly present and yet as elusive as “woman” herself – not simply because she is veiled or turns away – but because she is still in progress.” This is not a hasty generalization of the Arab female experience; rather the work is unique to Essaydi’s own relationship growing up as an Arab woman in Morocco. Acknowledging the range of Islamic governance throughout the East and West, the photographer stresses that she is not – and cannot be – speaking on behalf of all Arab women.
Through her work Lalla Essaydi lifts the Western veil of conflated presumptions revealing the unquellable women under male and Islamic writ. Converging Territories is a singing of these women, at once individual and integral, to the Arab culture and the palimpsest of Islamic law governing them.