She Who Tells a Story: Lalla Essaydi

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World offers a vision of the world she has witnessed.

Lalla Essaydi

(b. 1956, Marrakesh, Morocco; lives New York)

Essaydi began her career as a painter—she developed an interest in photography first as a means of documenting her other work, and then, she says, “It became a medium I fell in love with.” She creates multilayered images that confront the historical Orientalism of Western artists, particularly sexualized depictions of North African and Middle Eastern women.

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

A NMWA visitor studies Lalla Essaydi’s work in She Who Tells a Story

Her images often focus on a woman or small group of women whose clothing and bodies are decorated to match their surroundings. She uses henna—reclaiming the traditionally “male art of calligraphy”—to challenge gender dynamics within Moroccan and Arab cultures and between the East and West.

In Her Own Words

“When I was at school I made a huge Orientalist painting, and a curator from a museum was interested in it. When I tried to show her my other works, she had less enthusiasm. She only wanted the big fantasy. I started talking about the work, and she was surprised, she had thought the image was autobiographical. I was shocked that an expert in this area of art didn’t even know it was just a sexual fantasy.”

“From that moment, I knew I needed to do something. I am an Arab woman, and I don’t see myself in these paintings. A lot of people ask me why I choose to dwell on this issue, and it’s because it’s not solved.  It may not be about the odalisque now, but the odalisque is what later became the veiled female figure. If we don’t unveil that founding myth first, we cannot begin to address the rest.”—Lalla Essaydi, interview in ArtAsiaPacific

What’s On View?

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

Lalla Essaydi, Bullets Revisited #3, 2012; Triptych, chromogenic prints on aluminum, 150 x 66 in.; Courtesy of the artist, Miller Yezerski Gallery, Boston, and Edwynn Houk Gallery, NYC

The large-scale triptych Bullets Revisited #3 (2012), a set of chromogenic prints on aluminum, is in many ways characteristic of her work: it references Orientalism by depicting a woman lying down, and her body and clothing provide a canvas for henna calligraphy. In addition to henna, however, her surroundings are elaborately decorated with silver and golden bullet casings. With these, Essaydi evokes symbolic violence and restrictions on women.

The work’s visible black film borders emphasize the image’s artifice. It is large and visually lush, but Essaydi uses the borders, as well as the elaborate setup and deliberately abstracted, uninviting space, to underscore the fact that it does not reflect reality.

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.

She Who Tells a Story: Jananne Al-Ani

In Arabic, the word rawiya means “she who tells a story.” Each artist in NMWA’s summer exhibition She Who Tells a Story: Women Photographers from Iran and the Arab World offers a vision of the world she has witnessed.

Janane Al-Ani’s work on view in She Who Tells a Story

Jananne Al-Ani’s work on view in She Who Tells a Story

Jananne Al-Ani

(b. 1966, Kirkuk, Iraq; lives London)

Jananne Al-Ani is a photographer and video artist whose work has explored representation and conspicuous absence of the human body. Earlier in her career, she created work that depicted veiled women, examining stereotypes of Orientalism and cultural identity. More recently, Al-Ani has focused on landscapes, using aerial video and photography to show ambiguous sites with traces of inhabitation or seeming abandonment.

In Her Own Words

“The media coverage of the 1991 Gulf War, which focused on aerial and satellite images of a depopulated, barren landscape, had a major impact on my work. What followed was a reassessment on my part of the work of Orientalist painters and the way in which fantasies about the body and the landscape of the Middle East were constructed in their works. I began to see the body itself as a contested territory and during the 90s produced a series of works that attempted to counter the European obsession with uncovering and exposing the bodies of veiled women. More recently, with the Aesthetics of Disappearance project, I’ve attempted to re-occupy that space so, while the presence of the body is implied rather than explicit, the traces of human activity in the landscape are clear to see.”—Jananne Al-Ani, interview with Nat Muller in Ibraaz

What’s On View?

Jananne Al-Ani, Aerial I, production still from the film Shadow Sites II, 2011; Chromogenic print, 72 x 91 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011; © Jananne Al-Ani

Jananne Al-Ani, Aerial I, production still from the film Shadow Sites II, 2011; Chromogenic print, 72 x 91 in.; Courtesy of the artist and Abraaj Capital Art Prize 2011; © Jananne Al-Ani

Al-Ani’s photograph Aerial I is a still image from her film Shadow Sites II, which in turn is part of her project The Aesthetics of Disappearance: A Land Without People. She explains, “The actual term ‘shadow site’ is borrowed from the field of aerial archaeology and refers to the practice of surveying landscapes from the air at dawn or dusk when the raking light serves to reveal low lying features on the ground—details that would otherwise remain invisible.”

She was inspired by Edward Steichen’s WWI reconnaissance photography, which she saw as “strikingly beautiful images of landscapes obliterated by shelling and criss-crossed by trenches, but abstracted to such a degree as to have become exquisite and minimal works of art.”

For this work, which depicts southern Jordan, she emphasizes the image’s ambiguity. Al-Ani says, “My guiding preoccupation was with the ways that the evidence of atrocity and genocide haunts the often beautiful landscapes into which the bodies of victims disappear.”

Visit the museum and explore She Who Tells a Story, on view through July 31, 2016.

—Elizabeth Lynch is the editor at the National Museum of Women in the Arts.