Essaydi displays photos at UK Art Museum

By Judah Taylor

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Internationally renowned photographer Lalla Essaydi has lent some of her original prints to UK’s Art Museum, following her lecture as part of the Robert May Endowment Lecture Series.

Essaydi brought the photos to campus from her own personal gallery in New York earlier this month.

The photographs are on display in the Richard B. Freeman Gallery room of the art museum for students and the general public at no cost until Dec. 23.

The photos musically reflect the roles of women in a culture that is dominated by men, through the lens of a western-oriental style painting.

“They (her photographs) are a view into a world we seldom see,” said Janie Welker, the curator of collections and exhibitions at UK’s Art Museum.

“What looks to us to be just very beautiful is actually really subversive,” she said.

In Islamic culture, women are not allowed to use the sacred art of calligraphy, and in Islamic art the depiction of faces is also forbidden to prevent idol worship.

Essaydi, a Muslim, breaks both barriers in her art, not only by depicting the faces of women in Islamic buildings, but also by covering them and their environment with calligraphy. The writing is usually verses from her own personal journals that reflect her life story and musings, Welker said.

To apply the writing, she uses henna, an art that Islamic women have traditionally used to enhance their beauty, much like modern western women may use makeup.

The Arabic calligraphy covers the models from head to toe and flows over onto the walls, fabrics and backdrop of each scene. Often the women fade into the architecture behind them along with the inscriptions.

They often wear attire that mimics the architecture of their surroundings and serves to camouflage them.

“They (the subjects) really become part of this interior space that they are confined to,” Welker said. “She covers them (with a story) instead of giving them a voice.

“It’s a double-edged sword. While men function in a more public way…women are confined to the home… with incredibly beautiful architecture.”

Essaydi is breaking the silence of women while keeping their femininity.

She is telling their story, and her story, but not with a phallic symbol. She depicts the harem as a combination of Western and Middle Eastern ideas.

“It’s kind of a lush, sensual and sexual manner,” Welker said. “But it’s also the inside of a household, where the women and children live instead of a sexual free-for-all they think it is.”

Born in Morocco, Essaydi raised a family in Saudi Arabia, was an art student in Paris and currently lives in New York.

“It’s about past colonialism and independence,” The Washington Post reported Essaydi told a crowd at the opening of her exhibit in at the Smithsonian. “It is about women, by a woman and toward women. It is about freedom, constrained and controlled … It is about space within, between, about … It is more than art to me. It is my testimony. ”

The next artist to be featured in the Robert May Photography Lecture Series will be Hank Willis Thomas, who will lecture on March 1.