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posted on: Mar 19, 2017
By FARAH NAYERI
THE NEW YORK TIMES
The depiction of Arab women in art is a relatively recent phenomenon. For centuries, it was unconditionally banned; the only existing representations were 19th-century European fantasies of women lazing in harems.
Now, women from the Muslim world appear frequently in painting, sculpture and photography, yet the issue remains fraught.
A panel discussion at The New York Times Art for Tomorrow conference in Doha explored the subject of how Arab women are portrayed in art, with Lalla Essaydi, an artist who lives and works in New York and Marrakesh, and Touria El Glaoui, the founder of the 1:54 Contemporary African Art Fair and the daughter of the renowned Moroccan painter Hassan El Glaoui.
Ms. Essaydi was born into a privileged Moroccan household. Her father had four wives and 11 children, and she grew up in a predominantly female domestic environment, where a woman’s role was defined as marrying and having children. That is what she did initially, moving to Saudi Arabia and raising a family. But in the early 1990s, she went to France to study art and later moved with her children to the United States.
Ms. Essaydi’s works are a fusion of Arabic calligraphy and the female form. They are also a riposte to the 19th-century Orientalist paintings of Ingres, Delacroix, and Jean-Léon Gérôme, which were pure products of the imagination: semi-clothed concubines idly reclining in the harems of powerful men. These women were nameless and faceless objects of male desire; they had no personality.
Ms. Essaydi’s artworks — a result of lengthy photographic shoots — show real women from her family and entourage reclining inside historic Moroccan palaces. Their faces, hands and clothes are covered with Arabic inscriptions.
During the panel discussion, Ms. Essaydi described her relationship with Orientalist art as complicated. While she was able to appreciate the beauty of those works, “I really cringe at their representation of the Eastern world and the degrading position of women in their art,” she said. “When these Western artists come to a world that they don’t know, and portray women as sexual victims and the Eastern man as depraved, the effect is to emasculate the Eastern man, and to challenge the notion of honor and family.”
Speaking of herself and other women in the Arab world, she said, “We don’t see ourselves in these paintings.” Her aim, she said, is to break the stereotype by “appropriating the imagery or the style” of Orientalist painters.
Her conservative family, she said, was deeply suspicious of her artistic practice. “I had a lot of trouble doing my work,” she said. “They were almost saying that I was doing pornographic work because I was working with women. So I had to do it in such a way that they didn’t find out.”
She worked in secret, and photographed at night. During one particular shoot, the police had to guard the location “to protect me from my family because of the work I was doing. They didn’t understand. They were seeing this group of women together, and I was taking pictures, and they were questioning the fact that I was taking pictures of women in their domestic setting.”
Ms. El Glaoui spoke briefly of her experience as the founder of the 1:54 art fair, which is named after the 54 countries of North and Subsaharan Africa. Yet her remarks focused mostly on her father’s portraits of women, which contrast heavily with the depictions of the Orientalists.
Mr. El Glaoui, who is now 93, had a father who objected to his pursuing a career as an artist, his daughter said. Yet the boy was so passionate about art that he kept a painting studio in his mother’s home.
As a result, “the first models that he was able to reach out to without proper training were women from his entourage: his mother, his sister and the people assisting in the home,” she said. While she spoke, several of the portraits flicked by on giant screens: affectionate and loosely painted close-ups of women.
In 1950, he enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and spent nearly 15 years mastering his craft and learning disciplines like portraiture. But when he returned home, he realized that “this was not what his Moroccan audience was willing to appreciate and encourage him to do,” Ms. El Glaoui said. There were religious and cultural sensitivities to the representation of figures on canvas at the time, be they women or men.
So Mr. El Glaoui became known for his colorful depictions of wild horses. “Living in a Muslim country was part of the issue of why, probably, his portraits were not as appreciated,” she said. “He always says to everyone that if you only know his horses, you don’t know his art.”
Mr. El Glaoui has long been something of a hero in his homeland. In the case of Ms. Essaydi, recognition came much more slowly, not least because of her gender.
“When my work started being known in the Middle East and the media started writing about my work, that validated it,” Ms. Essaydi said. “It’s accepted now in Morocco.”
“I had many exhibitions, and my work is in the collections of the king himself,” she said. “People think that it is prestigious, and it is, and I’m honored. But the most important thing for me is that the kind of work that I do is in the collection of the most powerful person in the country, who can actually do something to help women.”
Have Western views of Arab women evolved? Not nearly enough, Ms. Essaydi replied.
“Western viewers are still seeing Arab women as being oppressed and marginalized,” she said, when in fact they were “significant participants in the dramatic change in the Arab world.”
Ms. Essaydi said she hopes that through her art, she can “help break down stereotypes and expose people to new perspectives.”
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