'The physical harem is the dangerous frontier where sacred law and pleasure collide. This is not the harem of the Western Orientalist imagination, an anxiety free place of euphoria and the absence of constraints, where the word 'harem' has lost its dangerous edge. My harem is based on the historical reality; rather than the artistic images of the West - an idyllic, lustful dream of sexually available
women, uninhibited by the moral constraints of 19th Century Europe.' (Lalla Essaydi, 2010).
Set in the backdrop of the highly-coloured and extravagant architectural setting of the Moroccan palace Dar al Basha, Lalla Essaydi's Harem #14 depicts the exotic voyeuristic fantasy of the Arab woman within the spatial confinement of a harem. Drawing heavily on Orientalist painting traditions such as those by Benjamin Constant and Jean Auguste Dominque Ingres, Essaydi challenges the viewer to reconsider the Orientalist notion of the East versus the West, of men versus women.
The female protagonist reclines in the odalisque pose of Orientalist fashion, yet she is camouflaged into the intricate patterns of her surroundings; through this technique Essaydi is addressing the complex reality of the Arab female identity from a personal perspective. Born in Morocco, raised in Saudi Arabia and currently living in America, Essaydi finds herself caught somewhere between past and present.
Traditionally in Islamic culture, men are allowed to occupy all public spaces, whereas women are confined to private spaces, in particular the architecture of their home.
They become intrinsically linked to these spaces; they are constrained and bound by these walls. By camouflaging the models in Harem #14 with the decoration that surrounds them, women literally become part of the space that they occupy. Essaydi thus plays on Western stereotypes, which in turn reflect back our own misconceptions and prejudices. There may be a sense of desperation on the model's face, but she emerges from her surroundings defiantly, demanding to be seen and acknowledged despite being confined - thus referencing the emerging culture of Islamic feminism.
Harem #14 is by no means an attempt to be a critique of Arab or Western culture; it is a suggestion of the complexity of the Arab female identity, the tension between hierarchy and volatility that are intrinsically at the heart of Arab culture. In a light-hearted, yet underlying subversive fashion, Essaydi enhances the aesthetic appeal of what are essentially clichés of the East seen through the lens of Western desire.