Visual Arts

Feminine Mystique

The best part of any art history class is learning whom an artist was sleeping with when she painted her masterpiece. It's natural — the thirst to hear the dirt behind the work. And the backstory often fuels the interpretation. In the case of the photography show "Lalla Essaydi: Les Femmes du Maroc" at Lisa Sette Gallery, the stunning images can surely stand alone — but they're so politically charged, you'll be dying to know the artist's bio.

Made by Essaydi on trips to her native Morocco, the photos are striking and hauntingly beautiful, while intelligent and layered with meaning. The piece Les Femmes du Maroc #27 is a series of three photographs that split one image of a gorgeous Moroccan woman lying on her stomach, brazenly looking directly into the camera. She has a tired and dreamy expression — "bedroom eyes." Swathed in fabric, hair flowing down her back, she lies on a squishy mattress lined with pillows and flanked by curtains. It's an intimate and private space. Every square inch of the setting is covered in henna calligraphy — including the woman's exposed face, hands and feet. She is smothered with her surroundings, and you sense stifled frustration. But her uninhibited gaze reveals quiet liberation.

Hot chicks in bed is nothing new. In this context, there's a clear reference to 19th-century Western Orientalism, a trend in which European artists created works inspired by visits to the Near East and North Africa. Often, the women were depicted nude and reclining in swarthy bedroom scenes as exotic, erotically charged creatures.

Essaydi's images touch on concerns about Muslim women in today's society. The use of henna (a female celebratory tradition) to write Arabic calligraphy (a sacred Islam art for men only) stresses a political contradiction.

Even with such irresistible issues, the show has one minor flaw. The description above could be applied to a number of the other photographs like Les Femmes du Maroc #16 — making the "girl lying in calligraphy" get-up a bit redundant. Still, taken individually, there's no denying that the pictures are breathtaking. The intricate scrawl of calligraphy overwhelms. It's no surprise that each photo required an exhaustive process. It sometimes took as long as nine hours for Essaydi and other participating women to complete the henna writing.

Thankfully, the gallery mixes it up by including a couple of her earlier works that skip the pretty ladies and focus on objects. Converging Territories, still Life with Flowers, is a close-up of a beautiful bouquet of white lilies. The flowers are bundled with a gauze-like fabric. They, too, haven't escaped Essaydi's calligraphy. From background to petals to stems — it's all adorned with the auburn text. A similar photo shows a pair of Moroccan slippers covered with the calligraphy. The images are quiet and don't stir as much political frenzy as the others — a welcomed break.

The intellectually provocative, sexy and disturbing images carry an assumption that this artist has quite a story to tell. When I saw the photographs, I wanted to speak with Essaydi. To my disappointment, she requested that the gallery refrain from providing contact information. Lisa Sette gave me supplemental materials, including a previously published interview with the artist and a long list of her accomplishments.

Essaydi has degrees from Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. She has shown in galleries and museums all over the U.S. and has a piece in the permanent collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.

Oh, and the clincher? Essaydi happens to be the estranged wife of Saudi royalty and manages to live in Boston with her college-age children. A juicy tidbit, for sure, but I couldn't get any other details of the princess' marriage.

So, I am curious: What would her husband think if he saw her work? Does he know anything about it? Why all the sneakiness, the unwillingness to talk about her art? Who is she hiding from — her audience, her husband or both?

Those questions and challenges do not take away from the beauty of her art but make it all the more tantalizing. Maybe that's her clever ploy — draw me in with the image and keep me there with the mystery.

Though I left Lisa Sette Gallery with an uneasy feeling about the backstory, ultimately, I appreciated the show. And in spite of the desire to learn the details of Essaydi's life to throw up against her artwork, I'm unsure of the outcome. Would knowing more enrich the work or injure its message? With such limited information, it's tough to tell. But her photos are undeniably breathtaking and, call me a masochist, I'm thinking it's better to leave wanting.