Lalla Essaydi

Miller Yezerski Gallery

Moroccan-born, New York–based photographer Lalla Essaydi lures the viewer into her third solo show at Howard Yezerski Gallery (the inaugural exhibition in its new space) with a pair of stunning large-scale pictures hung in the front window. Each depicts an Arab woman covered in calligraphy and posed to imitate a famous nineteenth-century Orientalist painting. Fumée d’Ambre Gris (The Smoke of Amber-gris), 2008, which features a young woman lifting her white veil to draw in the titular aphrodisiac, is based on Sargent’s 1880 painting of the same name. The Grande Odalisque, 2008, in parodying Ingres’s famous painting of a nude girl languishing in a Turkish harem, also critiques Western exploitation of Eastern women. In her contemporary version, Essaydi rejects the distorted, dreamy, and nude portrayal found in Ingres’s “gentle- man’s” painting, instead creating a realistic, clothed figure: a strong-willed woman who challenges the viewer to respect her and her domestic setting. Born and raised in Morocco, where only men are allowed to practice calligraphy, Essaydi rebelliously inscribes her female subjects with Arabic script, taking photographs that, showing flesh, burkas, and backgrounds completely covered in henna, comment on female identity and on the restrictions suffered by many Arab women.

Inside the main gallery, Essaydi resurrected Embodiment, a 2003 installation made up, in this incarnation, of ten photographic portraits digitally transferred onto white banners, and a short video. Shot inside and around her home in Morocco, the four-minute video intersperses sequences of the same still images that are printed on the banners with narrative footage about a Moroccan girl transitioning into young adulthood and taking on the traditional dress and restrictions of her culture. Essaydi reads the Arabic text written on the women in the still photographs, and narrates the girl’s story in English. The various portraits complement one another; the artist, I was told, intends the still images to serve as the walls of a house, and the footage as a doorway in.

The film is punctuated by a shot of a woman—a stand-in for Essaydi—who is shown from behind as she gradually covers a white wall as well as her own white dress and exposed flesh with poetic and self-revelatory words, which are read by the artist in voice-over. Speaking both for herself and for her compatriots, and wedged between past and present, Essaydi explains, “I am writing. I am writing on me. I am writing on her,” and continues to describe how she is “an open book” that is “still in progress,” one whose “chapters are chaotic and confusing.” A young Arab girl and two boys appear on the screen, playing together in an arid landscape and dressed in Western clothes. As the narrator describes a dialogue between reality and dreams, still images of the domestic life of women fade in and out: subjects are shown tending to one another’s hair; one beautiful nude figure covered with script inscribes text on another. In this installation, Essaydi attempts to express the richness as well as the confining aspects of Islamic traditions, and invites the viewer into the lives of the women she so compassionately portrays.

Francine Koslow Miller