Magazine article World Literature Today

Disrupting the Odalisque

Magazine article World Literature Today

Disrupting the Odalisque

Article excerpt

Through a camera's lens, a Moroccan photographer reveals how Arab women in henna represent a small feminist movement.

I n a sense, my work is haunted by space, actual and metaphorical, remembered and constructed. My photographs grew out of the need I felt to document actual spaces, especially the space of my childhood. At a certain point, I realized that in order to go forward as an artist, it was necessary to return physically to my childhood home in Morocco and to document this world that I had leftin a physical sense but, of course, never fully in any deeper, more psychological sense. In order to understand the woman I had become, I needed to re-encounter the child I once was. I needed to return to the culture of my childhood if I wanted to understand my unfolding relation to the "converging territories" of my present life. This culture and the space of my childhood within it were defined for me by specific domestic spaces, ones that still exist but are in the process of slowly deteriorating. So I embarked on a project to photograph these physical spaces before they were lost, and in doing so, to see the role they played in shaping the metaphorical space of my childhood.

Creating these photographs is performative: I use family acquaintances as models. Applying henna is a very painstaking process, and cannot be interrupted, so the models are unable to rest, sometimes for as long as nine hours. I do everything I can to make the process easy on them. I create a whole atmosphere for them so that they won't be bored; we play music and tell stories, I provide food and drink, and we only proceed after a day spent rehearsing, so they know exactly what to expect. But despite the demanding process, the women in the photographs participate because they feel they are contributing to the greater emancipation of Arab women and at the same time conveying to a Western audience a very rich tradition often misunderstood in the West. They see themselves as part of a small feminist movement.

Henna is a crucial element in the life of a Moroccan woman and is associated with the major celebrations in her life. It is first applied when a girl attains puberty to mark her passage into womanhood. When she is a bride, it is thought to enhance her charms for her husband. Finally, it is used to celebrate fertility when she has her first child- especially when the firstborn is male.

It is obvious that while my photographs are expressions of my own personal history, they can also be taken as reflections on the life of Arab women in general. There are continuities, of course, within Arab culture, but I am uncomfortable thinking of myself as a representative of all Arab women. Art can only come from the heart of an individual artist, and I am much too aware of the range of traditions and laws among the different Arab nations to presume to speak for everyone. My work documents my own experience growing up as an Arab woman within Islamic culture, seen now from a very different perspective. It is the story of my quest to find my own voice, the unique voice of an artist, not an attempt to present myself as a victim, which would deprive me of the very complexity I wish to express.

These photographs have led me to a greater understanding of the importance of architectural space in Islamic culture. Traditionally, the presence of men has defined public spaces: the streets, the meeting places, the places of work. Women, on the other hand, have been confined to private spaces, the architecture of the home. Physical thresholds define cultural ones; hidden hierarchies dictate patterns of habitation Thus, crossing a permissible, cultural threshold into prohibited "space" in the metaphorical sense can result in literal confinement in an actual space. Many Arab women today may feel the space of confinement to be a more psychological one, but its origins are, I think, embedded in architecture itself. In my photographs, I am constraining the women within space and also confining them to their "proper" place, a place bounded by walls and controlled by men. …

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