Lalla Essaydi: The Dangerous Frontier

24 Apr 2015 – 5 Jun 2015

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Kashya Hildebrand Gallery

London, United Kingdom


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  • Oxford Street or Tottenham Court Road
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Lalla Essaydi employs photography intersected with an array of artistic media and practices extending from installation to calligraphy and henna painting in her attempt to challenge Orientalist readings of Arab female identity. Includes panel discussion and book signing.


Kashya Hildebrand is pleased to announce Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi’s second exhibition with the gallery in London. Where Essaydi’s 2013 show served as a retrospective spanning five major bodies of work from 2003 to 2012, The Dangerous Frontier (24 April – 5 June 2015) focuses on new works created in the last year as part of her Bullets Revisited series. Essaydi’s photographs are the result of a complex performance-based medium comprising painting, calligraphy, interior design, costume design, stage directing, and finally photography. This meticulous process of image making is crucial to Essaydi’s oeuvre. The uncropped white borders of the film with the Kodak brand made visible emphasise that she fabricated her settings and identities, mocking the Orientalists’ invented fantasy scenes, yet hers are based on historical, social, and cultural facts.

The opening night will include a Panel Discussion on 23 April with the artist, Dr Venetia Porter (British Museum, UK) and Dr Olga Nefedova (Orientalist Museum, Qatar), which will begin at 6:30pm. After this, the artist will be available for questions or to sign copies of her book, Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures, available for sale at the gallery.

Throughout her work, Essaydi uses henna painting, using it to write intricate calligraphic text over every available surface – from the models themselves to their clothing and even the walls themselves. This henna painting comes to elaborately conceal the uncovered parts of the female bodies and in this sense assumes an allegorical dimension: even their bare skin becomes her canvas as she covers their ankles, legs, arms, wrists and faces in row upon row of tight script. What is key here is that the art of calligraphy itself is traditionally a male-dominated realm, yet Essaydi takes it and uses it with the ultra-feminine medium of henna dye (used by women to create decorative patterns for special occasions such as weddings). “By reclaiming the rich tradition of calligraphy and interweaving it with the traditionally female art of henna,” she explains, “I have been able to express, and yet, in another sense, dissolve the contradictions I have encountered in my culture: between hierarchy and fluidity, between public and private space, between the richness and the confining aspects of Islamic traditions.”

In her Bullets [and Bullets Revisited] series, Essaydi takes her creativity to another level, not only through the assiduous labour involved in the production of these photographs but also through the powerful imagery she presents. The models and their surroundings are elegantly adorned with sparkling golden fabrics and metallic materials, giving an impression of shimmering luxury. Upon closer inception, it is the military juxtapositions of carefully cut and polished bullet casings that build up these glamorous trompe l’oeil images. Despite this apparent blinding beauty, where ammunition is even hand sewn on the models’ clothes, jewels, and beds, Essaydi uses the bullet as a disturbing metaphor for the hidden violence endured by women in some Islamic cultures.

At the same time, Essaydi’s models are depicted as femmes fatales, equipped with threatening weapons with which they shield themselves against Western voyeurism and male domination. The coldness of the bullets’ brass conveys a feeling of uneasiness and rejects the warm colours and ambiance found in Orientalist paintings. The Bullets settings reproduce more faithfully Orientalist harems’ décor, yet transform these domestic spaces into psychological ones, tormented by violence. Talking about Orientalism, Essaydi stated that “beauty is quite dangerous, as it lures the viewer into accepting the fantasy” yet she subverts the danger of beauty in her Bullets series by seducing the viewer in a much more perilous world, that of war and destruction raging through contemporary society with the Arab Spring.

- Includes text abstracted from Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures (ACR Edition, 2015)

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Lalla Essaydi


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