Lalla Essaydi’s (b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco) art champions women. Central to the artist’s vision is a unique synthesis of personal and historical catalysts. As a Muslim woman who grew up in Morocco, raised her family in Saudi Arabia, and relocated to France and finally the United States, the artist has profound firsthand perspectives into cross-cultural identity politics. Essaydi also weaves together a rich roster of culturally embedded materials and practices—including the odalisque form, Arabic calligraphy, henna, textiles, and bullets—to illuminate the narratives that have been associated with Muslim women throughout time and across cultures. By placing Orientalist fantasies of Arab women and Western stereotypes in dialogue with lived realities, Essaydi presents identity as the culmination of these legacies, yet something that also expands beyond culture, iconography, and stereotypes.
The performative act of inscribing women’s bodies and spaces with calligraphy is a vital part of Essaydi’s approach, emphasizing the ongoing, active, and collaborative process of becoming and creating. Since her first major series Converging Territories (2002-4), Essaydi has used henna to envelope the women in her photographs in Arabic calligraphy, a skill she could not learn in school due to her gender. Henna is a form of decoration that marks some of the happiest and most significant moments of a Muslim woman’s life, and Essaydi elevates this tradition—conventionally regarded as a “woman’s craft”—into a radical act of visual and linguistic artistry. The stream-of-consciousness, poetic script includes biographical details relating to the artist’s and models’ experiences as women. Essaydi’s series Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-7) continued to engage with these approaches while expanding to also question the historical representation of Arab women in the Western art canon, referencing the Orientalist imagery of 19th century artists such as Ingres, Delacroix, and Gérôme. Her reinterpretation is a strong statement of the power of artistic representation to influence identity. In her Harem series (2009), set in a lavish yet isolating harem in Morocco, Essaydi addresses the complex social and physical confines of Muslim womanhood. Her most recent series Bullets (2009-14) introduces a new material for the artist—silver and gold bullet casings—which she has woven together to create glittering gowns of armor.
Essaydi’s work deliberately incorporates and invites perspectives from many angles. “In my art,” Essaydi explains, “I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”
Essaydi spent her most foundational years living in traditional Muslim society in Morocco and Saudi Arabia. She attended École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris before earning her BFA from Tufts University and MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, both in Boston. Her work has been exhibited around the world, including at the San Diego Museum of Art, CA; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; Bahrain National Museum; and Sharjah Calligraphy Biennial, United Arab Emirates. Essaydi’s work is represented in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA; Art Institute of Chicago, IL; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, TX; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; Brooklyn Museum of Art, NY; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA; and the Louvre Museum, Paris, amongst many others. The most recent text of her work, Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures, was published in 2015 by ACR Edition, in addition to a selection from her series Les Femmes du Maroc published by powerHouse Books in 2009. The artist currently lives in Boston and Marrakesh.
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Lalla A. Essaydi grew up in Morocco, and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. She now lives in New York City. She received her MFA from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/TUFTS University in May 2003. Essaydi’s work is represented by Schneider Gallery in Chicago, by Howard Yezerski Gallery, in Boston, and by Edwynn Hook Gallery, in New York City. Her work has been exhibited in many major U.S. and European cities, including Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Texas, Buffalo, Colorado, Houston, New York, Sant Diego, San Francisco, New Mexico, North Dakota, Syria, the Netherlands, Germany, England, Switzerland, and is represented in a number of collections, including the Williams College Museum of Art; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Fries Museum, the Netherlands; The Museum of Fine Arts Houston; The Kodak Museum of Art; The Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; The Kresge Art Museum, Michigan; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Santa Barbara Museum of Art, California; The Colorado Museum of Art, Colorado; The Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis; The New Britain Museum of American Art, Connecticut; The Ackland Art Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina; The Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH; and Longwood Center for the Visual Arts, Virginia. Essaydi’s art, which often combines Islamic calligraphy with representations of the female body, addresses the complex reality of Arab female identity from the unique perspective of personal experience. In much of her work, she returns to her Moroccan girlhood, looking back on it as an adult woman caught somewhere between past and present, and as an artist, exploring the language in which to “speak” from this uncertain space. Her paintings often appropriate Orientalist imagery from the Western painting tradition, thereby inviting viewers to reconsider the Orientalist mythology. She has worked in numerous media, including painting, video, film installation, and analog photography. “In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses—as artist, as Moroccan, as Saudi, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. In short, I invite the viewer to resist stereotypes.”