Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi takes traditions of gender and flips them on their head in her surreal and ethereal pieces of art. Still in Progress, on show at Leila Heller Gallery in Alserkal Avenue, is her first solo exhibition in the Middle East, taking in her major bodies of work over a ten-year period from 2003 to 2013.
There’s something inherently Middle Eastern about her photographs, which are meticulously created through an intricate process of painting, calligraphy, interior design, costume design and stage direction. But take a closer look and you’ll see that these images couldn’t be further from the traditional aesthetics and ideals that they were inspired by.
She uses henna, for example, instead of ink to painstakingly cover her subject’s skin in calligraphy, taking a medium traditionally dominated by men, and appropriating it through a feminine medium. It’s small, with enormous significance.
“I [was] able to express, and [also] dissolve the contradictions I have encountered in my culture,” Essaydi says. “Between hierarchy and fluidity, between public and private space, between the richness and the confining aspects of Islamic traditions.”
In her series Les Femmes du Maroc (2005-2007), the subjects of Essaydi’s work are arranged in poses reminiscent of 19th Century Orientalist paintings, while in her series Harem (2009) she blends women with furniture, exploring their role as decorative objects, such as in the piece pictured.
“I wish for my work to be as vividly present and yet as elusive as “woman” herself,” Essaydi has said of her work. “Not simply because she is veiled or turns away – but because she is still in progress.”
Free. Until Aug 15. Open Sat-Thu 10am-7pm. Leila Heller Gallery, Alserkal Avenue, Al Quoz (04 321 6942).