Converging Territories Lalla Essaydi

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L A L L A A . E S S A Y D I : C O N V E R G I N G T E R R I T O R I E S Howard Yezerski Boston, MJ September 4 - 3( Chapter One is in fact the ending. Chapter Two is missing. Chapter Three builds a reference to the unknown, and the rest of the book is still in 1 progress. Lalla A. Essaydi In her new series of photographs Converging Territories, Lalla Essaydi's feminist perspective and Moroccan identity continue to provide the broad aesthetic and conceptual basis for her interrogation of the position of women in Muslim society. Essaydi's new images are still created in Morocco in a collaborative and collective dialogue with her female subjects, yet they now employ a new visual language and a redirected set of visual strategies. A complexly layered visual text involving writing, painting, and photographic processes allows her both to veil and to reveal her meaning with greater subtlety and precision. Converging Territories situates Converging Territories #1 , 2003, 30"x40". C-Print Essaydi's concerns in a broader cultural context. No longer constrained by the confines of a particular Moroccan architectural environment as in her earlier work, her subjects now occupy a nonspecific multivalent space of their own making and imagination . Lengths of white fabric covered in handpainted calligraphic text entirely fill the visual field. In some images, the space suggests an interior domestic space; in others, the Converging Territories #12 , 2003, 30"x40". C-Print same background is recontextualized by the activity of the figures as an exterior urban space. In most of the images, the figures are traditionally clothed, and even properly veiled, all with the same fabric. This textual continuum extends as well into the additional painting of calligraphic text on the hands, feet, faces, and, in some works, the bodies, of the women. A single poetic text, written by Essaydi, is repeated t h r o u g h o u t — a text that is at once thought, speech, work, clothing, shelter, home, and world to its inhabitants, and constitutes a transcultural document that is more closely aligned with the currency of cultural nomadism, in particular with its links to new articulations of global feminism. The henna with which the text is painted is, of course, a traditional woman-identified substance for feminine body decoration in most Muslim cultures , but writing is not part of this context. Neither a woman's body, nor her clothing, nor the ground on which she walks, are the appropriate sites of a linguistic text, certainly not a text in classic Arabic, written in classic calligraphy. This language and this artistic practice of writing are reserved primarily for sacred texts, and are privileged in and of themselves due to their direct association with the inscription of the Qu'ran. Since its inception in the second half of the twentieth century , the use of calligraphy in Islamic painting, printmaking, and ceramics has been increasingly widespread throughout Islamic art. Yet the vast majority of calligraphic texts are still Qu'ranic verses. Only a small percentage are pre-Islamic poetry in Arabic, Persian, or Urdu; an even smaller percentage use Arabic calligraphy to transcribe secular modern poetry or contemporary political commentary. It is notable that these latter divergences are often the work of women artists, using calligraphy to bear witness to the violence of history and/or to honor texts of political resistance.^ Essaydi's text addresses the rawness and vulnerability of the act of revisioning women's identity in the face of "generations of translations" (Essaydi). The text reverberates in different ways throughout these images, yet we also see that the text requires constant renewal to survive. The urgency with which the women work to reinscribe and refresh 86 • Nka Journal of Contemporary African Art Converging Territories t>7 , 2003, 30"x40". C-Print the text, even as the earlier layers of henna fade into unreadability or flake onto the ground around them, is symptomatic of the tenuousness of the impact of women's-rights movements in many Islamic societies. These emotions and their articulation speak as well to the condition of global...

"My photographs are about the women subjects' participation in contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women, while at the same time conveying to an outside audience a very rich tradition of practice, relationships, and ideas that are so often misunderstood and misrepresented in the West." —Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi's photographs deal with a rebellion against the limited domain of the female within Islamic traditions. As noted in Nazar: Photographs from the Arab World (Aperture, 2005), according to Islamic tradition, the street is the domain of men, and women are condemned to live indoors. Behind closed doors, they are nothing more than decoration, suggests Essaydi, a situation she that she vividly represents in Converging Territories, which appeared in the spring 2005 issue of Aperture magazine alongside a text written by Isolde Brielmaier. Essaydi places Islamic women in isolated spaces and literally decorates them with texts written in henna. The texts—a reversal of the silence of their isolation—give the women a voice, with which they can speak to the space and to one another. The rebellious character of the photographs is magnified by the fact that within Islam calligraphy cannot be practiced by women.

Converging Territories #30 was photographed in the house where women and girls from the artist's family were locked up, sometimes for weeks, when they transgressed the rules of Islam. Essaydi herself was sent to this space as a youth; escorted by silent servants, she would be left alone for up to a month. As Isolde Brielmaier notes, "her intention and introspection are evident in her photographs: we see Essaydi turning 'space' into something more than just the delimited enclosures of that house of her childhood."

Lalla Essaydi’s (born Marrakech, Morocco, 1956) work is represented in the collections of the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Columbus Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and many others.


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