Art Facts

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Essaydi's photos at MoPA explore complexities of Islamic femininity

In the Islamic tradition, the public sphere is the male domain, and women are relegated to the private sphere. Moroccan-born photographer Lalla Essaydi puts her female subjects into isolated domestic spaces and covers them in Islamic calligraphy, producing images that are at once exotic and alluring yet repulsive and startling.

"Converging Territories #28," 2004, chromogenic print, is one of photographer Lalla Essaydi's works that will be on view in an exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park. Photo courtesy of Laurence Miller Gallery, New York

The Museum of Photographic Arts in Balboa Park presents seven of the artist's large-format color photographs in the exhibition "Lalla Essaydi: Converging Territories." The exhibition opens Sept. 25 and the photos will be on display through Jan. 7, 2006.

For four years, Essaydi, who is both a painter and photographer, has been working on "Converging Territories." The photographs are set in a large unoccupied house outside Marrakesh, Morocco, belonging to the artist's family -- the same house in which she and her female relatives sometimes were locked up for weeks at a time if they had transgressed the rules of Islam.

Essaydi and her subjects have turned these rooms into their own private space of creative transgression. The artist combines calligraphic writing, a sacred and poetic Islamic art form reserved for men, with henna, a traditionally female adornment. Written by Essaydi in henna, the text covers every surface including the women's exposed hands and faces, mimicking the use of Arabic calligraphy as a decorative motif in Islamic architecture.

The images present quietly subversive contradictions. In "Converging Territories #28," a group of seven women wear the hajib with eyes cast downward, appearing silent and dutiful. Yet the Islamic texts that cover everything represent a reversal of their silence, giving these women a voice. The floor at their feet is littered with empty eggshells. Eggs, in any culture, symbolize fertility and birth, but here they are defiantly broken and covered in forbidden writing.

At a time when media images portray Arab culture negatively, Essaydi's portraits encourage an expression of positive empowerment, against a backdrop of traditions and preconceptions and misunderstandings about Arab women. The artist encourages viewers to consider a more complex reading of the Muslim culture surrounding these women.

"Experiencing various cultures has broadened Essaydi's sense of self, as well as an appreciation of her roots," said MoPA Curator Carol McCusker. "But more importantly, her images and text ask not just Arab women but all women to empower themselves, regardless of cultural background, in order to reverse an increasingly global condition of injustice."

Essaydi grew up in Morocco and spent many years in Saudi Arabia, where she began her basic art education. She attended the L'Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1990s, got her BFA from Tufts University in 1999 and in 2003 received her MFA at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where she currently lives.

The photographs in "Converging Territories" are on loan from the Laurence Miller Gallery in New York and from a local private collector. Essaydi's works, shown in MoPA's atrium, will complement the exhibition "Only Skin Deep: Changing Visions of the American Self," which opens Oct. 1.

"Only Skin Deep" explores the meaning of race, and how photography has shaped our understanding and perception of race. Divided into five distinct sections, each analyzing how photographs fuel myths and create false stereotypes, the exhibit highlights the diversity of American culture through portraits, social documentary, science and landscape photography from the 19th century to the present. MoPA and the San Diego Museum of Art will share the exhibition, which includes more than 250 historical and contemporary photographs.

MoPA is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Thursdays until 9 p.m. The museum is located in Balboa Park in the Casa de Balboa building, east of the main traffic circle and central fountain. Gallery admission is $6 for adults, $4 for students, seniors and military, and free to members and children under 12. Admission is free on the second Tuesday of the month. For more information call (619) 238-7559 or visit

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