“The Harem: Essentialized Sensuality” at Cal Lutheran Art Gallery Through November 3rd

Free French tours of art exhibit on harems

Photographs at Cal Lutheran explore Arab female identity

The public is invited to take free French-language tours of California Lutheran University’s photographic exhibit on harems.

French native Brigitte Richard will lead three tours of “The Harem: Essentialized Sensuality” in the Kwan Fong Gallery of Art and Culture on Friday, Oct. 14. An elementary-level French talk will run from 10:30 to 11:30 a.m., one focused on conversation and composition will be held from 11:45 a.m. to 12:50 p.m., and an intermediate-level tour will conclude the activities from 1 to 2 p.m. Richard will discuss art historical influences on works on display by Moroccan-born photographer Lalla Essaydi. She will also pose questions, giving guests an opportunity to practice their French skills.

Richard, a member of the American Association of French Teachers, has worked as a French tutor for students and teachers since 2011. She received her degree from Nantes University in France.

“The Harem,” on exhibit through Nov. 3, features photographs by Essaydi designed to disrupt stereotypical views of harems. The harem has long been a focus of artistic depiction, particularly in 19th-century paintings of voluptuous European and Middle Eastern women in stages of undress against backdrops of lush arabesque designs. In her photography, Essaydi strives to upset these stereotypes and revert to an authentic idea of the harem as a space designated as strictly for women and without overt sexual connotations.

In Essaydi’s series “The Harem” and “The Harem Revisited,” women wear henna and clothing patterned to match the architecture they inhabit. Her art often combines Islamic calligraphy, a largely male art form, with representations of the female body and addresses the complex reality of Arab female identity from the unique perspective of personal experience.

The exhibit works to undermine Orientalism, the stereotyping of Middle Eastern culture as primitive and exotic. Essaydi’s images are visually opulent, but they create spaces where women reclaim their autonomy, reject objectification and return the viewer’s gaze. She visually describes Muslim women as strong and invites viewers to approach her subjects as human, rather than through a sensual and mythological lens.

After her girlhood in Morocco, Essaydi lived for a time in Saudi Arabia and was educated in Europe and the United States. She now lives in New York and works in Boston.

The gallery is located in Soiland Humanities Center at 120 Memorial Parkway on the Thousand Oaks campus.

Reservations are requested by Oct. 10. Email curator Rachel T. Schmid at rtschmid@callutheran.edu with the tour you want to attend. For more information, contact Schmid at 805-493-3697 or visit CalLutheran.edu/kwanfong.