Lalla Essaydi Harem Series

Edwynn Houk Gallery is pleased to announce an exhibition of large-scale photographs by Lalla Essaydi from the artist’s most recent series, Harem Revisited and Bullets Revisited. The show will be on view from 16 May through 22 June 2013 with an opening reception for the artist on Thursday, 16 May from 6-8pm.

Lalla Essaydi was raised in Morocco and spent many years in Saudi Arabia, and although she was educated in Europe and the US and now lives in New York, this experience of traditional Islamic life was fundamental to her unique approach to the examination of the identity of the Muslim woman. Utilizing a unique working method and set of visual devices that she initiated in 2003 for the iconic series, “Converging Territories,” Essaydi applies many layers of text written by hand with henna in Islamic calligraphy to the subject’s faces, bodies, and environments. Then, she arranges her subjects in poses directly inspired by 19th Century French painters such as Ingres, Delacroix and Gérôme, whose Orientalist paintings featured the harem and the eroticized Arab female body. Using the perspective of an Arab woman living in the West, Lalla Essaydi reexamines and questions this representation of the Arab female identity.

“The physical harem is the dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide. This is not the harem of the Western Orientalist imagination, an anxiety-free place of euphoria and the absence of constraints, where the word “harem” has lost its dangerous edge. My harem is based on the historical reality; rather then the artistic images of the West – an idyllic, lustful dream of sexually available women, uninhibited by the moral constraints of 19th Century Europe.” Lalla Essaydi, 2010

While Essaydi’s new work continues to explore this theme, the subjects of Harem Revisited are clothed in elaborate caftans and their environments are now covered with these richly adorned fabrics. The draperies are dense and have such rich embroidery and complex patterns that when seen altogether, the effect is dizzying, essentially turning the women themselves into objects of decoration, camouflaged within their environments. They become, in effect, a metaphor for the essence of Essaydi’s exploration. These vintage textiles, which were created between the 17th century to the early 20th century for use in wedding ceremonies, to decorate palaces and the harem area, were all generously loaned to Essaydi from the Nour and Boubker Temli collection.

In the works from the Bullets Revisited series, a scene is set in the sort of room one finds in Orientalist painting. Each room – its tiles, woodwork, and other décor, as well as the women’s clothing- is reproduced in faithful detail. But these scenes are created with bullet casings that turn the domestic space into a psychological one, charged with the violence within contemporary society.

Lalla Essaydi’s work is represented in a number of collections including The Art Institute of Chicago; The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond; The Columbus Museum Of Art, Ohio; SF MoMA, California; the Jordan National Museum; the North Carolina Museum of Art; the Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York; The Arab Museum of Modern Art, Qatar; The British National Museum, London; The Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA; the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian; and Le Louvre Museum, Paris, France amongst many others.

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Bullet Revisited #22 by Lalla Essaydi

“In my art, I wish to present myself through multiple lenses — as artist, as Moroccan, as traditionalist, as Liberal, as Muslim. 

In short, I invite viewers to resist stereotypes.” Lalla Essaydi

Moroccan-born artist Lalla Essaydi investigates the multi-faceted identity of muslim women in beautiful, intricate and delicate photographs. Subjects like the odalisque, the harem and the veils seem to have her preference to address this complex issue. The poses are also often  reminiscent of 19th century Orientalist paintings: she describes them as fantasies that everybody failed to perceive.

Her works are meticulous and superimpose many layers, materials and references. The construction of her pictures sometimes take a year!  For The bullet series, she made a huge cape with bullets cases (see picture below); Islamic calligraphy is applied by hand with henna, on the bodies; long veils are hand written. Lalla Essaydi says her work is autobiographical. But the references as well as the aesthetics make it universal.

Lalla Essaydi studied Orentalist painters who have portrayed Arab women as sexual objects for male’s fantasy. Although she is fascinated by these paintings, she questions the message they give as well as their veracity. In Les Femmes du Maroc she mimics the poses of these paintings (the reclining nude remind us of Ingres or Gérôme) and transforms the harem into a feminist statement. She reflects on the images of women from past and present, from the East and the West.


For Lalla Essaydi the stream-of-consciousness calligraph writing is a subversive act as the written word in Islamic culture has always been the domain of men. Here, she is literally giving these women a voice. At the same time she seems to entrap them in all these words that may still tell the happiest stories of these women.

Architecture, space, geometry  and clear composition lines are very strong in her work. Women are always present but seem to be absorbed by the walls and become the harem.

Lalla Essaydi’s career as an artist has encompassed many media such as painting, mixed media, and video; however for the past years, she has devoted herself to photography, and to sumptuous explorations of the image of women in Islamic society.  She was raised in Morocco and spent some years in Saudi Arabia. She studied in Europe and in the US.  Represented by the Edwyn Houk Gallery, she was present at the 2014 Art Basel edition. She currently lives and works in New York.Lalla Essaydi’s website

03.07.2014 – Post by Valérie Reinhold – Photography, courtesy of  Lalla Essaydi and Gallery Edwyn Houk

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