A surprise today at the National Museum of African Art. While viewing Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi’s photos of North African women with Arabic script inscribed across their skin, I came upon this adapted version (above) of one of my favorite paintings, John Singer Sargent’s Fumée d’Ambre Gris.
In her series Femmes du Maroc, Essaydi poses women to mirror well-known “Orientalist” paintings by European men, with the aim of demythologizing the exotic stereotype.
I found Essaydi’s work provocative, and I understand the idea that covering her photos with script gives these women “voice”, but I didn’t walk away feeling they were particularly empowered.
Maybe if I read Arabic. Or maybe I’m missing something.
Funny, I never considered Sargent’s Fumee d’Ambre Gris to be perpetuating a stereotype. I love it for its composition, its many shades of white, the positioning of the woman’s fingers, the texture of the cloth. It speaks of place to me, and Sargent’s technique is masterful.
I’m familiar with the fetishization of “Oriental” women; I saw plenty of it when I lived in China. But Sargent is no Gauguin.