Writing her way into (and onto) Arab history

Essaydi uses calligraphy to critique

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff / October 11, 2009

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LINCOLN - The term “Orientalism’’ refers to a way of representing Arab culture that was highly prevalent in the West during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Orientalism tended to depict Arabs as colorful, exotic, and inferior. Those depictions took many forms: scholarship, fiction, travel literature, and, most notably, painting. Attracted by the vivid visual possibilities sand, souk, and seraglio offered, artists such as Delacroix, Gerome, and Ingres embraced them, however unrepresentative they might be.

Lalla Essaydi, a Moroccan-born photographer who’s a graduate of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, takes Orientalism as a point of departure in her ongoing photographic series, “Les Femmes du Maroc.’’ Translated, it means “The Women of Morocco,’’ which could sound like the title of a Playboy pictorial. That’s one of the many ironies implicit in these visually chaste images. Another is that a classic Orientalist canvas, Delacroix’s “Les Femmes d’Algiers,’’ inspires the series. A selection of 17 photographs, “Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc,’’ runs at the DeCordova Museum through Jan. 3.

What Essaydi does in these pictures is at once simple and complex. Updating Orientalism, she turns it inside out. Her photographs subvert Orientalist prejudices through parody. At the same time, she uses traditional means, Arabic calligraphy, to criticize the ongoing treatment of women within the culture itself. The resulting works are elegantly detached and calmly unflinching: art-historical jests with a sociopolitical kick.

In these photographs, Essaydi reworks Orientalist elements, many of them drawn from specific paintings. The images are doubly self-conscious. Essaydi not only stages them as tableaux, she covers nearly the entire surface (bodies, clothes, backgrounds) with calligraphic texts. It’s as if we’re seeing the women - all the subjects of the photographs are female - from behind a scrim, clothed in script no less than in garments (and, of course, assumptions). The calligraphy on the woman’s robe in “Converging Territories #29,’’ for example, looks like part of the decoration behind her.

In a further layering of complexity, the texts come from the photographer’s own journals. And Essaydi uses henna ink for the writing. In Islamic societies, henna has been traditionally associated with females - just as calligraphy has traditionally been the purview of males. Thus a photograph like “Les Femmes du Maroc: Harem Women Writing’’ verges on declaration of personal independence.

The pictures are in color, though the tones are subdued (gray and beige dominate) - a further divergence, and surely intentional, from the flamboyant chromaticism of Orientalist painting. They are also very large: 30 inches by 40 inches, 50 inches by 60 inches, or, in two instances, 72 inches by 96 inches. The size emphasizes a curious effect of the texts. The calligraphy, attractive in and of itself, works to flatten the pictorial space. This emphasizes the staginess of the images. So do two additional elements. Essaydi uses many of the same models (the tableaux become akin to film stills, albeit from an oddly stilted production), and she prints the pictures with their black frame borders and Kodak serial numbers. It’s as if she wants to make sure we remember that even though her pictures are inspired by paintings, and bear a significant amount of text, they remain photographs.

It’s funny how much less stagy these staged photographs seem than the original paintings. Alongside many of Essaydi’s images are small reproductions of the paintings that inspired them. One that stands alone is “Les Femmes du Maroc #42,’’ which recasts Gerome’s “An Almeh With Pipe/Jeune Fille.’’ But the Mathaf Gallery, in London, which owns the painting, refused to allow any reproduction because, a wall text states, “the Lalla Essaydi Exhibition specifically criticizes works of Gerome in portraying women.’’ At least Essaydi can take it as a tribute to her images’ power to provoke

“Jules Aarons: In the Jewish Neighborhoods, 1946-76,’’ which also runs through Jan. 3, greatly differs from the Essaydi show in certain obvious respects. The pictures are documentary rather than staged; black and white, not color; and much smaller (various sizes in the vicinity of 8 inches by 12 inches). But as with Essaydi, we are reminded of the enrichment of vision that can come from an observer’s sharing sympathies and/or affiliation with a subject. All the pictures are undated and untitled (another difference from Essaydi’s), yet all also evoke a powerful sense of time and place.

Aarons, who died last year at 87, was a physicist who taught for many years at Boston University. He saw his photography as a “human counterpart,’’ his term, to his professional work. He began taking pictures as a young man. Later in life, attending scientific conferences abroad, he made a point of always bringing along his camera.

The 46 photographs in “Jules Aarons: In the Jewish Neighborhoods, 1946-76’’ have two things in common: the keenness of Aarons’s eye; and the ethnic character of the neighborhoods (a word used rather loosely).

Five are from Israel, and four from Paris. Those are the loveliest (of course they are - they’re from Paris). The others are much closer to home: the Bronx, where Aarons grew up; Rockaway Beach, in New York, where his family vacationed; and Boston’s West End, where he habitually photographed on weekends and late afternoons when he first came to BU. Is it too much to read a greater vividness and spirit in the West End pictures?

Some of the subjects are overtly Jewish (a kosher butcher), most are not (elevated train lines in New York and Boston). Again and again there are marvelous details: a cardboard bucket for Bazooka bubblegum on the counter of a Bronx newsstand; the jaunty angle of a man’s cane as he stands in the middle distance under the el; the thick stub of cigar in a cardplayer’s mouth; the boxy bluntness of a Parisian accordionist’s instrument seen sideways.

Aarons’s pictures are simple and straightforward, affectionate without ever being apologetic or sentimental. He recognizes that his subjects are as exotic and colorful as anything in North Africa or the Near East 150 years ago, similarly worth recording, and in no way inferior.

Mark Feeney can be reached at

LALLA ESSAYDI: Les Femmes du Maroc

JULES AARONS: In the Jewish Neighborhoods, 1946-76

At the DeCordova Museum, 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln, through Jan. 3. 781-259-8355,

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