Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Contemporary Female Gazes on Orientalist Painting: writing the Harem

We visited the Jenkins Johnson Gallery yesterday (on Sutter Street in San Francisco) to see the exhibition of large-scale photographs by Lalla Essaydi. A few photographs echo French or English Orientalist painting of the late 19th and early 20th centuries but most involve the models and artist conspiring in a new kind of "gaze." The women are all clothed, sometimes in fabrics written over with large, abstracted Arabic characters, sometimes with fabrics that match the tiles of the room where they are posed; models are sometimes busy writing or reading or looking at one another or, rarely, looking at the camera. Their faces are inscribed with henna in the same abstract script. (Essaydi wrote all the script herself). Go if you can-- the show is at Jenkins Johnson until December 3. Here is a link to the works there: 

Above, a photograph of Les Femmes du Maroc "Harem # 10" (it is 48 x 60"). The discussions I have read -- about Essaydi's work -- seem to me either to discuss the politics of the work (does the addition of the clothing, the writing, the complicity of the models all liberate these images from the past or does re-visiting this artistic genre merely reinforce stereotypes) or the critic comments on the beauty and the power of the work as art.  I don't think it is possible to un-tangle these two sets of responses ... I find myself awed by the ways Esssaydi gives these women both political and artistic life. What do you see?

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