Friday, 15 May 2015


Bullets Revisted#27B chromogenic print 122x153cm Image courtesy of the artist and Kashya Hildebrand Gallery, London


Sometimes artists, such as the British Orientalists, know not what they do. Nearly a decade ago Tate Britain held an exhibition of their paintings entitled “The Lure of the East". Bored, gorgeously-clad concubines lounge in the secret depths of a harem. Watercolours, oils and sketches dating from the late 18th to the early 20th century represented the heyday of British artists' love affair with the Middle East.

But their work has been unpicked and reconstructed by later generations in ways they could not possibly have foreseen. In this astonishing exhibition The Dangerous Frontier Moroccan photographer Lalla Essaydi confronts this delusion head on, with her uniquely dramatic, beautiful and original works. They are colourful, exotic, beguiling and technically brilliant. And they expose imperialist fantasies as the stuff tabloid images are made of.

Essaydi's photographs are the result of a complex performance-based medium; painting. calligraphy, interior design, costume design, stage directing and finally photography. Her imaginative and powerful final blow is to present her work showing the uncropped white borders of the film, with the Kodak brand name visible. Her signal that the settings and identities are fabricated mocks the orientalists'  fantasy scenes which were meant to show reality. 
Bullets Revisited #44 chromogenic print 152x121cm Image by courtesy of the artist and Kashya Hildebrand Gallery

There remain two more surprises. The art of calligraphy was a male-dominated realm. But Essaydi paints intricate calligraphic texts over every available surface: walls, clothing even the models themselves. And she uses  henna dye, used exclusively by women to decorate themselves on special occasions such as weddings.

Lastly what we see are  models and their surroundings  adorned with sparking gold fabrics and metallic materials in shimmering luxury. Or do we? They are but trompe d'oeil images: bullet casings, carefully cut and polished, have been hand-sewn on the models' clothes, jewels and beds, a military juxtaposition which is a chilling reference to the hidden violence endured by some women in some cultures.

An entertaining article by Rachel Aspen includes the reaction of Victorian British women to orientalist paintings:

And a book: Lalla Essaydi: Crossing Boundaries, Bridging Cultures,

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