Deconstructing Notions of Gender in Africa
Deconstructing gender in the work of Lalla Essaydi. Bullets Revisited #44
Lalla Essaydi, Bullet revisited #44, 2014 chromogenic dye coupler print mounted to aluminium
Lalla Essaydi’s photographs are the product of a complex and intricate performance-based medium that involves calligraphy, sculpture, set design, painting, and photography. Each image is the culmination of a process in which Essaydi creates a totalizing imaginary world, in which Orientalist paintings are deconstructed as a means of exposing both contemporary European and Islamic cultures’ constructions of femininity to stake a claim for matriarchal power in an otherwise male-dominated society (Solomon 48). This essay will explore the process by which Essaydi accomplishes this deconstruction beginning with her reference to Orientalist images, exploring her process and use of techniques, with a focus on the Bullet and Bullet Revisited series, and Bullet Revisited #44 in particular. This process of deconstruction will then be interpreted in light of Essaydi’s own intercultural position between North Africa, Saudi Arabia and North America.
Essaydi’s process involves meticulously staging each photograph to mimic the poses of Nineteenth Century Orientalist paintings by artists such as Jean-Augustine Dominique Ingres, Jean-Leon Gérôme, Edouard Manet, Eugène Delacroix and (Mizrahi 102). In so doing, Essaydi reveals their Orientalist construction of North African and Arabic femininity construction as a fantasy of Western male artists prying into private female spaces (Rocca,121). Whereas Orientalist paintings depict their subjects continuous with a fantasy of exoticism and opulence staged for the male enjoyment, Essaydi distinguishes her subjects from their highly-constructed settings by rendering the eyes the only element that looks out from a space that is otherwise fully inscribed with artistic intention. In contrast with the subjects of the Orientalist paintings she takes as her reference, Essaydi’s women appear as agentic subjects rather than objects of voyeuristic European imagining. The exoticism and voyeurism encapsulated in Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger dans leur Intérieur (Figure 1) aptly frames Essaydi’s critique. The anthropological label “Women of Algeria” submits the painting’s subjects to a Western regime of categorization that substitutes subjectivity for typology, while “in their Interior” signals a male observer’s transgression of a private realm. Essaydi challenges this composition by intervening in its visual codes. While Delacroix’s women appear déshabillées as if to seduce a male observer, Essaydi’s women (Figure 2) are fully clothed. Whereas Delacroix’s subjects invite the viewer in – the woman on the right drawing back the curtain as if on a staged performance, while the reclining figure on the left appears to expose herself to viewer, Essaydi’s reclining figure has her back turned, and all three subjects fix the viewer with their gaze, guarding their private world against outsiders rather than inviting them in. This is reinforced in a closed composition, the women’s bodies positioned towards each other instead of the viewer. The bright colours that signal the exoticism of the Western male imagination are replaced with a monochrome visual regime composed by a North African female artist to overwrite the image of North African femininity that originates in European male fantasy with her own authentic creation.
(Figure 1) Delacroix, Eugène, “Femmes d’Alger dans leur intérieur”, 1849.
(Figure 2) Essaydi, Bullet Revisited #32
In the series Converging Territories, Les Femmes Du Maroc (Figures 4, 6), Harem and Harem Revisited, Bullet and Bullet Revisited, Essaydi encloses her subjects in a totalizing visual field. Using the art of henna drawn on exposed areas of skin practised between women in North African and Middle Eastern cultures, Essaydi substitutes the usual gemotrical and vegetal forms for a medium of illegible script that resembles Arabic calligraphy, even covering their faces to “veil” them in an obscure language. The texts inscribed on Essaydi’s subjects were designed to be illegible, but the forms created by the artist allude to Arabic calligraphy without yielding any information. This interplay between graphic symbolism and literal meaning taunts Western assumptions that one will find access to reality in those scripts, opening those assumptions to question. (Rocca, 126). In employing calligraphic writing, Essaydi utilizes an Islamic artform usually inaccessible to women. The application of the writings in henna which adds a further subversive twist, confusing the traditional preservations of male and female domains and roles. The writing of Arabic lettering over the women’ exposed skin also acts as a kind of veil – provocatively invoking lettering of the Quran and its illegibility to Western eyes, marking the unavailability of these women’s bodies for cultural appropriation.
(Figure 3) Singer-Sargent, Fumée d'Ambre Gris (Smoke of Ambergris), 1880.
(Figure 4) Essaydi, Les Femmes Du Maroc: Fumée d’Ambre Gris, 2008.
(Figure 5) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingrès: La Grande Odalisque – 1814
(Figure 6) Essaydi, Les Femmes du Maroc: Grande Odalisque 2, 2008
The Bullet series including Bullet Revisited (2009-2014), is named for its extensive use of the shell-casings of used bullets in constructing the set and costume of Essaydi’s performative environments. There is a marked progression through the Bullet series, from single female figures in recumbent poses (gaze averted) into groups of two or three women assembled. As the series progresses, the gaze of Essaydi’s subjects turns toward the viewer, and becomes more direct, even confrontational. Each woman in the series is posed and attired against a metal backdrop made from bullet casings that give the appearance of a stage-set. The costumes of the women also have parts of bullet casing sewn onto them. Essaydi constructs the total environment of her photographs through a laborious and lengthy process. Working with bullet casings purchased from U.S. shooting ranges, the artist separates the metal scraps from the shells, cuts them out and punctures them to be sewn together (Hachad 6). She the artist builds her sets and costumes by in small pieces due to the weight of the bullets, and then ships to Morocco to be later woven together into larger assemblies that resemble textiles in their appearance (Hachad 6). The background of her sets consists of furniture pieces, floors, and walls made up of pieces of these fired bullets embedded into wood panels.
This series recalls Ghanaian artist El Anatsui’s methods of creating large textile-like artworks from flattened liquor labels collected in Southern Nigeria, e.g. in Old Man’s Cloth (2003). While the title of Anatsui’s work references Ghaniaian kente cloth, the tessellated interlocking patterns of Essaydi’s backdrops resemble Moroccan mosaic tiles. Like Anatsui, Essaydi’s repurposes an unconventional medium for its historical significance and to formally resemble cultural artefacts of the artist’s own region. Anatsui’s use of discarded liquor labels signifies the fraught trade history between Europe and Africa (Young), while Essaydi uses bullet casings to symbolize the violence of the Arab Spring and express concerns at the restrictions imposed on women as a result (NMWA). Women played a vital role in these revolts, but as new regimes moved into power women were forced into subordination (Manea 86). The bullet casings therefore testify to women’s presence in the public sphere of the Arab Spring, while their situation in what appear to be domestic interiors expose the containment of women in their “proper” place behind private spaces (Manea 87). Both Anatsui and Essaydi employ unconventional techniques of art production to surpass Western art history’s limited categories.
Depicting a woman against a mosaic of bullet casings, Bullet Revisited #44 – the last in the series – is exceptional for the way its subject is posed. Whereas other images show women in languid reclining poses, she is seated in a broad, upright posture, as if enthroned, filling the frame, her gaze direct and confrontational. Her cloak of bullet casings renders her literally armoured. If the subject resembles a queen, her posture is not only regal but archetypal. Positioned last in the series, this image recontextualizes the others, such that the bullet casings appliquéd to their robes appear as battle dress. The image’s Orientalist counterpart is likely Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant’s L’Impératrice Theodora (Figure 7). The golden costume and backdrop of Essaydi’s image resemble the Empress card of the Visconti Sforza tarot deck (c.1450) commissioned by the Duke of Milan. (Figure 8) According to Mizrahi (p.103), this card portrays either a noble woman married against her will or a judicious one orchestrating power from behind the throne (Mizrahi 102). Analysing its iconology, Mizrahi finds the card (number three in the deck) stands for a reconciliation of opposites producing a unity of male and female. Essaydi enriches this reference with techniques applied to Western female subjects in paintings contemporaneous with Orientalism. Her approach to the subject’s gaze both recalls and subverts that of Manet in Olympia (Figure 9) – whose pose is quoted in her reclining figures (e.g. Bullet #1). In both images the subject stares at the viewer, Essaydi’s clothed woman emulating "… the courtesan painted by Manet provokes the viewer to consider the idea that women are not always willing to cede to male wishes" (Da Nobrega 20).
(Figure7) Jean-Joseph Benjamin Constant, L’Impératrice Theodora (c.1886)
(Figure 8) Bonifacio Bembo, Visconti-Sforza Tarot Card “The Empress”, 1450-1480
(Figure 9) Édouard Manet, Olympia. 1863
Lalla Essaydi draws on art historical and cultural tropes to challenge the construction of gender in Western Orientalist art and stereotypes about Muslim women in Western culture more generally, while at the same time challenging notions of gender native to her Islamic, Arab, and Moroccan culture. As a result of the artist's diverse cultural affiliations, from her upbringing in Morocco to later marrying and living in Saudi Arabia, and finally residing in the US, her background -like her body of work- reflects those transcontinental experiences. Essaydi positions her experience “as a woman caught somewhere between the past and the present, as well as someone, wedged between "East and West". Attempting to explore a language which I can "speak" from this uncertain space. But in the absence of any specificity of place." (Essaydi, 67). In Bullets Revisited #44, Essaydi provocatively involves viewers in this Moroccan/Arab/Muslim experience, maintaining the composition of Western Orientalists' but challenging Western assumptions and tropes and depicting autographical elements through handwritten Arabic calligraphy, sketched on female bodies and incorporating Moroccan cultural elements, from decorative tiles and mosaic to henna and calligraphy, and adorning women's bodies adorned in draped cloth (Rocca 123). She involves memory, agency, and identity and offers her interpretation of female beauty. The women's group compositions, soft lighting, and spatial arrangements are well studied to establish an impact on the viewers. Anna Rocca contests that this specific photography uses as a construction instead of reality prompts the audience to question the imagined and the real, the object and the subject, and what defines the other and the self (Rocca 123). She uses the woman's body to disrupt the Orientalist gaze and break down assumptions. She portrays orientalism as a western male artists' projection of sexual fantasies, a voyeuristic culture that inculcates distortion and peering into private space.
Bullets Revisited #44 merges drawing, composing, directing, and photography to deconstruct women's roles as art objects and construct them as art curators. Essaydi’s use of calligraphy, as an ancient art inaccessible to women, as decoration and a means of expression (Solomon 48 serves both a statement of expression and a veil which are more interwoven than opposites (Pitouli 1). The veil of concealment and decoration is not rejected but rather integrated, improving the images' expressivity (Essaydi 63). By inventing her own calligraphy Essaydi constructs a feminist response to the omission of women from cultural production within Arab tradition, rendering the woman's body a defensive screen (Pitouli 1) and site of cultural opposition. The omnipresent calligraphy on the woman's skin and other surfaces reframes its traditional application as a male mode of artistic production to a produce a form of women's expression and curation. It challenges the Islamic gender association of calligraphy with male scholarship and places women within this arts usage (Essaydi 63). By using henna as an improvised form of "ink", Essaydi elevates henna (primarily a feminine experience used in Morocco to commemorate female rights of passage) (Essaydi 63 Pitouli 1) to the status of the male art of calligraphy, thus challenging gendered notions of hierarchy in artistic craft.
Essaydi engages with Islamic notions of gender to deconstruct them: by placing women within private spaces in accordance with the cultural expectation of Muslim women, she plays on the contradictions women face in those societies as well as the richness within the strict confinements of cultural practices. (Essaydi, 67). Berger (1972) argues that women are born within allotted and confined spaces, into the keeping of men (Berger 23). In the photographs in the Bullets Revisited series leading to Bullets Revisited #44, Essaydi confines the women with walls behind them, and floors beneath them, the photograph bordered on all sides by the Kodak frame. In Bullets Revisited #44 Essaydi imprisons the subject within this doubly walled space, constrains her to her "right" place, an area wall-bound and managed by men (Solomon 49). However, while the photograph places women inside a specific cultural space, it also challenges gender notions by having them own that space (Solomon 48). The woman's pose exceeds the visuality of the embroidered cloak and blanket, which blend with the walls, making her the centre and focus of the photograph (Hachad 17). The subject mimics a ruler's pose owning the space and the audience's focus and gaze. In this space, the women rule. Essaydi's juxtaposition of calligraphy with henna to create a quasi-textual veil further deconstructs Western and Eastern notions of gender regarding Muslim women.
Essaydi engages with both Arab culture and Western portrayal of Arab women to deconstruct and reformulate notions of gender. She challenges the voyeuristic tradition of Orientalist projection of Western male artists’ sexual fantasies on to the screen of Arab women’s bodies. In inscribing their bodies with henna, Essaydi establishes the skin as the site of a protective screen against the misconceptions of Orientalism and those women’s own culture as the means of accomplishing this. Essaydi veils the exposed parts of the woman’s body in minuscule calligraphy. Using henna to write calligraphy further dislocates the hold of Islamic culture, with Essaydi positioning her subjects in a non-specific space that does not identify as specifically Moroccan or Islamic cultural space, substituting instead a multivalent space of female imagination and creative authority.
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