'This highly decorative, impactful piece provides a window into a secretive world'

guy goodfellowHarem Revisited #33, 2012, by Lalla Essaydi (b.1956), 48in by 60in, Private Collection

Guy Goodfellow says:

I find this image transfixing. Having long admired 19th- and early-20th-century Orientalist art, I enjoy Lalla Essaydi’s fresh approach to it. Here, the artist re-creates a French School harem pose, herself applying the hennaed Islamic calligraphy covering the woman’s body. Antique textiles are central to my projects and those used in this composition are sensational. Her bed, wrapped in a strong indigo-blue carpet, contrasts with the sweeter surrounding colours and brings the subject forward in the composition. Her layers of clothing appear to extend out into the profusion of silks around her, adding to her allure. This highly decorative, impactful piece provides a window into a secretive world, a place the artist describes as a “dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide”.

Guy Goodfellow is an interior designer and producer of furnishing fabrics

John McEwen comments on Harem Revisited #33:
In an explanatory statement, the artist writes of Islamic culture: ‘The presence of men defines public space, the streets, the meeting places. Women are confined to private spaces, the architecture of their homes… Their confinement is a decorative one… In photographing women inscribed with henna, I emphasize their decorative role, but subvert the silence of confinement. These women ‘speak’ visually.

Furthermore, the  calligraphic writing, a sacred Islamic art form only recently accessible to women, constitutes an act of rebellion. Applying henna, a form of adornment considered “women’s work”, further underscores the subversion of the act… There is the very different space I inhabit in the West, a space of independence and mobility. It is from there that I can return to the landscape of my childhood in Morocco, and consider these spaces with detachment and new understanding.’

The henna calligraphy that ‘decorates’ the woman’s skin is illegible, but draws from the artist’s stream-of-consciousness. ‘I am interested in exploring the thin line between Eastern and Western associations of the harem: the harem as sin, as woman, as space.’

The pose is an ironic retort to the seductive odalisque purveyed by European Orientalists. The woman is camouflaged by layers of elaborate, vintage caftans of the type used in wedding ceremonies and to decorate palaces and the harem. She becomes herself an object of decoration.

Lalla Essaydi’s perspective has been formed by a convergence of territories: born and brought up in Morocco, she raised her children in Saudi Arabia, completed her education in Europe and the USA, and now works in Boston and Marrakech. Her art spans painting, video, film, installation and photography. It can be seen in the ‘I Am’ exhibition, currently touring the USA until November 2018.