Classifying Lalla Essaydi’s studio practice as photography overlooks the complex array of production and practice that goes into the pieces such as, performance, textual, participatory, installation, site specific, and relational. She constructs a variety of tableaus with the help of female friends, family, and colleagues and together they create lucid Arabic text, which covers bodies and cloth; the text becomes its own architecture.  Her photographs document the assemblage of these artistic practices while bringing an interwoven awareness to the specificity of place, time, language, and body.

Essaydi’s photographs operate within a larger historical context of Orientalism and seek to interrogate, diminish, challenge, and dismiss its constructions. Orientalist artists like Eugene Delacroix and Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres created intimate paintings that created a mythical Other in reference to Arab and Muslim nations that categorized them as wild, sexual, primitive, and submissive. These notions become most apparent in the wide array of postcards featuring seductive Arabian women before French photographers.[1] These photographs and paintings typically objectified women and placed them in exotic and unreal scenes. Essaydi was spurred to react to these constructions when she learned that Westerners like the curator at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston believed these original Orientalist scenarios were real as Essaydi states:

“Not surprisingly, this interaction had a lasting impact on me. I will never forget that encounter because it drew a line for me. I knew almost instantly that this was my path. So in a way, I thank her. My investigation with Orientalism started when I encountered Orientalist paintings in art history classes… Ironically, it was my exposure to Western art that enabled me to re-enter artistically the spaces of my childhood and to see them in relation to the constructed space imposed by the Western gaze.”[2]

Though considering her work as an assemblage versus photography one can see it activate and connect to its past, processes, and possibilities. Deleuze and Guattari have elaborated upon the notion of assemblage as a practice with deep political implications, because assemblages are collections of multiplicities:

There is no unity to serve as a pivot in the object, or divide in the subject. There is not even the unity to abort the object, or “return” in the subject. A multiplicity has neither subject nor object, only determinations, magnitudes, and dimensions that cannot increase in number without the multiplicity changing in nature…An assemblage is precisely this increase in the dimensions of a multiplicity that necessarily changes in nature as it expands its connections. There are no points or positions…There are only lines.[3]

Essaydi’s lines connect women, Orientalism, gender, the Western Gaze, photography, fashion, North Africa, language, sexuality, installation, feminism, etc into a complicated assemblage that is gradually being revealed through her growing series of works. Jasbir Puar furthers the importance of assemblage because it “allows us to attune to movements, intensities, emotions, energies, affectivities, and textures as they inhabit events, spatiality, and corporealities.”[4] This complicated web speaks to the hegemonic powers of Orientalism and its ongoing metamorphoses, which Essaydi interrogates through her practice.

[1] Jones, Amelia. Seeing Differently: A History and Theory of Identification and the Visual Arts (p. 67). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.

[2] Maureen G. Shanahan,, “A Conversation with Lalla Essaydi,” ed. Sarah T. Brooks, The Photography of Lalla Essaydi. Critiquing and Contextualizing Orientalism (Broadway, VA: Branner Printing) 2014, 6-22.

[3] Deleuze and Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus, pg 8

[4] Jasbir Puar. Terrorist Assemblages. Pg 215