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"Lalla Essaydi: Revisions" at the National Museum of African Art

The Moroccan-born photographer's exhibit showcases her unique view of Arabic culture.

Many of the women in Lalla Essaydi’s photographs are covered in Arabic script. “Les Femmes du Maroc: Fumée d’ambre gris” by Lalla Essaydi, Courtesy of Edwynn Houk Gallery.

“Lalla Essaydi: Revisions”–opening May 9 at the National Museum of African Art–showcases work by a contemporary artist known for her enigmatic images of women. The exhibit of photographs, paintings, and installations is the first comprehensive look at the Moroccan-born Essaydi’s work. One series of photos, “Les Femmes du Maroc”–in which Essaydi used henna to cover walls, clothes, and her models in Arabic script–plays on decorative traditions and the limited visibility of women in the Arab world. “The notion of Oriental mystique is so famous throughout Western art,” says Christine Mullen Kreamer, chief curator at the museum. “Essaydi uses it to engage ideas of history, identity, gender, and her own stories.”

Essaydi’s technique of posing models to recall paintings by Ingres, Delacroix, and others makes her work feel oddly familiar, while the patterns and calligraphy she adorns them with are both subtle and striking. Her paintings are less well known than her photographs. “They’re very large and immersive, and they convey the sensual textures and jewel tones of 19th century paintings,” says Kinsey Katchka, who curated the exhibit. “This show gives a different view of a culture that is often perceived as something else in mass media.”

Through February 24, 2013. Visit the National Museum of African Art’s website for more information.

This article appears in the May 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.