Key Ideas about this Work of Art
- This intensely colored photograph shows a dark-haired woman lying on floral-patterned fabric, with her head propped on a pillow. She is wearing a red veil over a white robe that is covered in henna writing. The same type of text is written in henna on her skin. In the background, there is a red cabinet with two doors that are painted with intricate details.
- The text on the woman’s clothing and body is written in Arabic calligraphy, a practice reserved for men in Arab cultures. Henna, the substance used to write the text, is traditionally used only by women in Arab cultures.
- Artist Lalla Essaydi grew up in Morocco and now lives in the United States. Her work focuses on Arabic female identity and makes references to Orientalism, a way in which Western artists in the 19th century made Eastern cultures and peoples seem exotic by portraying them as stereotypes.
- Silence of Thought #2 is part of Essaydi’s Three Silences series. Through these photographs, the artist challenges stereotypes of Muslim women, putting them in charge of the spaces to which her culture confines them. She writes her own story in henna, in the form of Arabic calligraphy, taking back the power to tell her story.
Born in Morocco, Lalla Essaydi did not become an artist until she moved from Saudi Arabia to the United States in 1996. She believes her work—autobiographical writings inscribed on women’s bodies and cloth and captured through photography—would not have been possible had she stayed in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.
In a sense I am a Western artist, making art in a style I was unable to use in my home country … I want to combine all these elements in order to engage the whole problem of myself as other.
Essaydi is best known for her photographs of Moroccan women covered in Arabic writing (using henna, in calligraphic script) that tells stories of the artist’s personal experiences. Her work challenges traditional practices in Arab culture, where calligraphy is an expressive art form reserved for men, and henna is a dye associated with women’s adornment rather than a way to communicate a meaningful narrative. Even her choice of surfaces on which to write, cloth and skin, challenges convention.
With intense jewel tones and ornate architectural details, Essaydi’s Three Silences series powerfully evokes the Orientalist imagery she seeks to expose. Rather than simply repeating the centuries-old Western tradition of portraying Eastern culture and the female body as something exotic, the artist inserts her own story into the images. She invites viewers to question stereotypes of (and myths or imaginary ideas about) the cultures and peoples of the Far East. Silence of Thought #2 captures the subject in private, at rest in the peace of her own feminine space. By incorporating Orientalist and feminist themes, as well as women’s relationship to spaces, Essaydi speaks to the boundaries of Muslim female identity and gives these spaces a feminine voice through her text.
tags: pattern, balance, fashion, meaning, subjectivity, ritual, perspective, identity
Resources for Teachers:
- Watch a video explaining Essaydi’s purpose through her work.
- Explore an online exhibition of Essaydi’s work.
- Read an article about the difficulties of being a female artist in Morocco.
Resources for Students: