Lalla Essaydi

Lalla Essaydi’s work, centering around her childhood in Morocco, will be displayed in 17 locations worldwide this year.

Prepare for the East to be brought to West Campus: Lalla Essaydi, the world-renowned Moroccan multimedia artist is coming to Sawhill Gallery today.

In the Western world there exists a particular preoccupation with women of the East and the traditions they adhere to, most specifically the adornment of the hijab, or veil. The West often sees this tradition through a singular, narrow lens that depicts this custom as oppressive and damaging to the women who wear them.

However, Essaydi, whose works will be exhibited this year in 17 different locations worldwide, including JMU’s own Sawhill Gallery, uses her paintings and photographs of veiled Arab women to shatter these stereotypes of Muslim women and their traditions.

“Images of the harem and Odalisque [Turkish concubine] still penetrate the present, and I use the Arab female body to disrupt that tradition,” Essaydi said in her artist statement, which is titled “Disrupting the Odalisque.”

Essaydi’s work subverts misconceptions of Islamic traditionalism by applying calligraphy and henna to women’s bodies. Calligraphy is a form of art historically reserved for men, while henna is a tradition performed solely by women on women’s bodies. Just as Essaydi gives a voice to Arab women, the exhibition of her work on campus helps shed light on a culture that is oftentimes underrepresented in the JMU community.

“As a former student from JMU, I was one of the few Muslim women at the time as a minority on campus,” JMU alumna and former officer of the Muslim Student Association, Mavra Ahmed (’12), said. “I believe that it is very important to display a Muslim artist’s work on this campus for the university to get a broader perspective on Muslims and of course, Muslim women.”

The fact that the art to be featured was made by a Muslim woman dispells these stereotypes in more ways than one, through both the art and the artist.

“Muslim women are engaged in the public realm and are creative, free-thinking minds, which is not an image you usually see being tied to Islam when it comes to women in particular,” sophomore political science and international affairs double major Nahla Aboutabl, said.

By featuring women Essaydi knows personally, her work “[invites] the viewer to resist stereotypes” in a deeply personal way.

“Stereotypes aren’t just part of the outside world. They exist on campus as well as off campus,” Aboutabl said. “To educate students who are unfamiliar with Muslim women’s contributions to art and culture could really open up their minds to what Muslim women are like and not what they’re thought to be.”

The exhibition of Essaydi’s work will benefit not only JMU, but Harrisonburg as a whole.

“One of the hidden treasures of Harrisonburg, which is usually unknown and a surprise to the JMU community, is the ultimate diversity that Harrisonburg actually has,” Ahmed said. “The town itself has a huge Muslim population, ranging from the majority of Muslims coming from Iraq, Kurdistan and the Middle East, to South Asian countries such as Pakistan.”

With such a varied and widely representative community, Essaydi’s exhibition has the potential to act as a unifying force between Harrisonburg’s ever-flourishing Muslim population and the JMU community.

“Muslims are very much part of the international community as well as local ones and it’s important to highlight that,” Aboutabl said. “It’s important to understand the culture of people around you if cooperation and coexistence were to ever be achieved.”

Essaydi’s exhibition, “The Photography of Lalla Essaydi: Critiquing and Contextualizing Orientalism,” will be on view today through Friday, April 4 at the Sawhill Gallery on the fourth floor of Warren Hall. Essaydi will also be hosting an artist talk tomorrow from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Grafton-Stovall Theatre.

Contact Rachel Kenney at

I'm Nahla Aboutabl, an international affairs major as well as a passionate commentator on all things political and social. I'm that angry tweeter you'll probably unfollow, so I take to more than one platform to express my opinions.