The artistic depiction of Maghrebi women has been skewed, hijacked, misrepresented, bastardized, exoticized, and everything in between. Orientalist art conjured up scenes of harems, women in baths, lavish sitting areas--this artistic portrayal went beyond just illustrating the artists' imaginations, but it set a standard and fed into a narrative that defined women from the region in terms of their space. This space illustrated in Orientalist art sought to sexualize that women lived in and the space that they embodied. Even the practice of veiling, which has evolved in meaning and purpose throughout the centuries, was sexualized through the art. Below are some classic images of Orientalist art:
While Orientalist art has been deconstructed theoretically, most notably by Edward Said, two contemporary Moroccan artists have challenged these depictions in their own way.
Lalla Essaydi is a Moroccan-born artist whose work has gained prominence throughout the world. I interviewed her a few months ago on Jadaliyya, and she brought up the role Orientalist art played in her work:
"My work reaches beyond Islamic culture to include the Western fascination, which we see so powerfully in painting, with the odalisque, the veil, and the harem. It’s obvious to anyone who cares to look that images of the harem and odalisque are still pervasive today, and I am using the female body to complicate assumptions and disrupt the Orientalist gaze. I want the viewer to become aware of Orientalism as a projection of the sexual fantasies of Western male artists, in other words, as a voyeuristic tradition, which involves peering into and distorting private space."
She also adds:
"By invoking the Orientalist tradition in a way that makes the viewer aware of its inherent assumptions, I hope not to provoke some kind of “blame game” but rather to liberate viewers—Arab and Western alike—from the grip of these assumptions.
Below are some examples of her work:
Lalla Essaydi goes beyond deconstructing these images, but her work, as she describes, is a retrospective. It is injected with her own perception and experiences, especially as an Arab woman living in the West. In the pieces above, I was most struck by her use of space and how that space is maintained through the women. The patterns of the walls continue on to the women themselves, making them virtually inseparable from the space they are in. This poses a profound argument against the one of the results of Orientalist art, which defined women in the pieces vis-a-vis their space. This was carried on through colonialism and even into today, when Arab women continue to be defined according to their physical space, with a focus on dress, for example, rather than a reality shaped by a multitude of factors that weigh differently for each individual. Lalla Essaydi approaches this narrative and flips it on its head.
Another Moroccan artist approaches the depiction of women in a different way. Hassan Hajjaj invokes a commentary on neoliberalism and prescribed gender roles, producing some fantastic images. Below are some examples:
His use of pop art in the context of Morocco is almost satirical. The impact of neoliberal policies from the 1980s under Hassan II set the stage for the pouring in of foreign investment and trade. Cue the McDonalds, the Coca Colas, the Pepsis, the KFCs, the Pizza Huts. Hassan Hajjaj approaches the depiction of Arab women through this angle, and creating what would be viewed as a conflicting image for those who tout the Orientalist narrative, such as the above image of veiled woman and a bottle of Coca Cola or the veiled woman integrated in the depiction of the US flag. Even though the Coca Cola label is in Arabic, it's recognizable. What's interesting is that Hassan Hajjaj invokes another aspect of these neoliberal policies: the inequalities they facilitated. Morocco has one of the highest income inequalities in the region. In the last image, the bottle, although a Coca Cola bottle, isn't filled with soda.
There is, without a doubt, much to be said about the artists mentioned here. Despite their varying approaches and commentary, they share similarities in that they seek to deconstruct, and in some ways, reclaim the depiction of Maghrebi women, but in different ways. Maghrebi women were most often the subjects of Orientalist art because of the colonial relationship with France. Beyond the theoretical deconstruction of these narratives, Moroccan artists not only counter them, but they also provide viewers with a pluralistic commentary that steps beyond rigid binaries. These pieces invoke realities shaped by the very factors Orientalist art perpetuated.