The Toledo Museum of Art’s Apollo Society has acquired the compelling photograph La Grande Odalisque, by Lalla Essaydi, which references Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ famous 1814 reclining nude, La Grande Odalisque. That oil painting, residing in the Louvre in Paris, belongs to a genre that came to be known as Orientalism. The term describes the exotic and sensual way in which 19th– and early 20th-century Western artists (mostly male) depicted the Muslim culture of North Africa and the Middle East.
In her photo series Les Femmes du Maroc, which includes Le Grande Odalisque, Essaydi reacts to and in some cases recreates these Orientalist images, making subtle changes in poses and facial expressions. Her subjects are draped in white (mourning) cloth and covered in dense Arabic calligraphy done in henna. The words are largely illegible but come from the artist’s own musings about personal identity and freedom.
Born and raised in Morocco, Essaydi married a Saudi prince and lived in Saudi Arabia for many years. She entered art school at age 34 in Paris, finally receiving her MFA in photography and painting from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts/Tufts University in May 2003.