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Amid bullets, Arab women reclaim identity

At first, Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s latest project looks like a fashion spread in Vogue magazine: Beautiful women with long, flowing black hair. Shimmering dresses melting into shiny backgrounds. Henna covering every inch of bare skin.

Essaydi’s work is decidedly not that. Darkness emanates from the sparkle.

Bullets.

They adorn every surface of Essaydi’s creations. The casings are woven into the costumes and threaded around the women.

Essaydi has never viewed herself as a militant. Instead, she has made art that is a constant investigation of the polarization between East and West — art that dispels crude stereotypes of Arab culture and women. She uses the female body to make her viewers acutely aware of a voyeuristic tradition in Western art.

But “Bullets Revisited” has an added dimension, and Essaydi says it is her most aggressive work to date.

It is born from the struggles of the Arab Spring and the roles played by women in demanding justice. It references the blood spilled in Tahrir Square and beyond. Of the sexual violence perpetrated against women and ultimately, a return to their subjugation under new regimes.

“This gender apartheid is not about piety. It is about dominating, excluding and subordinating women,” Essaydi said. “It is about barring them from political activities, preventing them from fully exercising the rights Islam grants them.”

Essaydi collects bullet casings by the bucket from training booths in the United States. She sorts them from metal scraps, cuts them and makes holes so she can later weave them as a mesh. Since the casings are heavy, she weaves them into small pieces and takes them back to Morocco, where she assembles them into cloth.

The fabrics are sewn in her studio in New York and then transferred piece by piece to Morocco, where the work is photographed. She hired people with hunting licenses — the only people in Morocco who are allowed to own guns — so they could buy and fire bullets that she could cut to create the sets for her photo shoots. Many of the models are her nieces and cousins.

It’s a long and arduous process that has been going on for years.

“All my projects, they never stop,” Essaydi said by phone from Marrakesh, Morocco. “Somehow I don’t feel things are resolved.”

The images are a continuation of a topic Essaydi has been exploring for a long time, one that developed from her identity as an Arab woman. She was born in 1956 and raised in Morocco. She got married and spent a chunk of her life in Saudi Arabia, though she was educated in Paris and at Tufts University in Boston.

The central themes in her work were triggered by her love-hate relationship with the depiction of Arab culture in European Orientalist paintings. She marveled at how exquisitely conceived they were, but she was deeply troubled by their content.

Those works depicted women in Middle Eastern dress against the backdrop of sumptuous harems that conjured eroticism. Many of the paintings portrayed Arab culture as backward, almost barbaric, as if to justify imperial conquests.

Among them were iconic works such as “La Grande Odalisque” by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Jean-Leon Gerome’s “The Slave Market,” which shows a naked woman being sold in a public place. A man is checking her teeth as though she is an animal.

Gerome was known for meticulous brush strokes that brought photo-like precision to his paintings. Aesthetically, Gerome’s work appealed to Essaydi. But she saw the paintings as anathema to reality. It was a Western man’s fantasy depiction of her culture.

“Women are presented as passive sexual slaves or as dangerous jezebels — in either case, generally nude — and Arab men as weak swarthy procurers,” Essaydi said. “I want not simply to expose such distortions, but also to provoke the viewer into a different kind of seeing, one which shapes a new understanding.”

She began creating art that exposed Orientalist art as pure fantasy.

She removed the opulent fabric of Orientalist works. She blew them up to a large scale, because Orientalist paintings were often small so they could be secretly shared among men. She formalized distorted elements: architecture, harems, women.

She used the stereotypes of Orientalist paintings against themselves. She often places her women in the same poses as the odalisques of European art.

In the case of harems, Essaydi said, she wanted to show that they were not places of sexuality but rooms tucked behind a labyrinthine network of corridors and massive doors. They were places of isolation where women could be with their male relatives hidden from the outside world. Essaydi spent time imagining how the women consigned to this place felt and the solidarity they shared.

“I am an Arab woman. I was born in a harem,” Essaydi said. “It’s not what the Western take is. My father is a Muslim. He was married with four women and had 11 children.

“The physical harem is the dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide,” she said. “My harem is based on historical reality. That of the West (is based) on artistic images — an idyllic, lustful dream of sexually available women, uninhibited by the moral constraints of 19th-century Europe.”

In her rendition of “The Slave Market,” Essaydi modifies Gerome’s painting. She replaces other slaves and the background with Islamic architectural detail. The slave buyer is still wearing the same clothes, but he looks head on at the viewer instead of his face turned sideways. Without a hood, he is fully exposed for what he is: a blond-haired, blue-eyed man. The name of her piece is “Duty Free.”

Essaydi also uses Arabic calligraphy written with henna, a sacred element in the life of a woman from Morocco and other Arab nations. It is a sign of a passage into womanhood. It is decoration to enhance the charms of a bride for her husband. It is a celebration of fertility.

Making henna imprints on skin can be a painstaking process taking up to nine hours. The calligraphy represents Essaydi’s story and the story of the women who pose for her, though it is deliberately illegible. She describes it as a play between graphic symbolism and literal meaning and a constant questioning of largely European assumptions that written texts hold the best access to reality.

“I am writing,” her texts say. “I am writing on me, I am writing on her. The story began to be written the moment the present began. … A dialogue between reality and dreams. Arguing, fighting, hope comes creeping in silence, but forceful. … I am dreaming about freedom and don’t know how to talk about it. … I am a book that has no ending.”

The texts make it clear that they are real Arab women rather than creatures of European fantasy. These women are not sexualized as in Orientalist paintings, and they are very much aware of their audience. They are in complete control of how they want to be seen.

“The truth is that Arab women today are having difficulty with both worlds, Arab and Western alike,” Essaydi said. “The same carapace of Orientalism is being projected on them from two directions. They are either weak and in need of rescuing, or jezebels that need to be brought under control. In either case, they are defined by their sexuality, which is threatening to Arab men and seen as ripe for possession in the Western fantasy.”

Essaydi believes her work, including these photographs, reclaims Arab women from such projections.

“Bullets Revisited” gains even more relevance now amid the current chaos in Syria, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.

“When I look at these bullets, I know they are violent. They have been used,” she said. “Some of them, I don't know where they came from. Maybe they were used to harm somebody.”

She has projected violence on her work as violence escalates in the Middle East. She used to want to get away from the news and find peace in making art. But now with “Bullets,” that’s no longer the case.

She has a constant reminder of the broken world around her.

- Moni Basu, CNN