Exhibit designed to shift view of harems — Photographs at Cal Lutheran explore Arab female identity

thumb arial, sans-serif; font-size: 12pt;”>Photographs designed to disrupt stereotypical views of harems will be on display from Oct. 10 through Nov. 3 at California Lutheran University.

“The Harem: Essentialized Sensuality,” featuring the work of Lalla Essaydi, will be exhibited in the Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture on the Thousand Oaks campus.

The harem has long been a focus of artistic depiction, particularly in 19th-century paintings of voluptuous European and Middle Eastern women in stages of undress against backdrops of lush arabesque designs. In her photography, Essaydi strives to upset these stereotypes and revert to an authentic idea of the harem as a space designated as strictly for women and without overt sexual connotations.

In Essaydi’s series “The Harem” and “The Harem Revisited,” women wear henna and clothing patterned to match the architecture they inhabit. Her art often combines Islamic calligraphy, a largely male art form, with representations of the female body and addresses the complex reality of Arab female identity from the unique perspective of personal experience. Much of her work is autobiographical, looking back on her girlhood in Morocco.

The exhibit works to undermine Orientalism, the stereotyping of Middle Eastern culture as primitive and exotic. Essaydi’s images are visually opulent, but they create spaces where women reclaim their autonomy, reject objectification and return the viewer’s gaze. She visually describes Muslim women as strong and invites viewers to approach her subjects as human, rather than through a sensual and mythological lens.

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

After Morocco, Essaydi lived for a time in Saudi Arabia and was educated in Europe and the United States. She now lives in New York and works in Boston. She has made art in numerous media, including painting, video and installation. Her work has been exhibited extensively throughout the U.S. and abroad including Syria, England and Japan, and is in many collections, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Fries Museum and the Williams College Museum of Art. 

Admission is free. The gallery is located in Soiland Humanities Center at 120 Memorial Parkway. It is open to the public 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, contact curator Rachel T. Schmid at 805-493-3697 or visit CalLutheran.edu/kwanfong.

© Lalla Essaydi. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich

© Lalla Essaydi. Courtesy of the artist and Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York and Zurich


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