To say that the works of the Moroccan artist Lalla Essaydi are just photographs is a gross simplification. A painter by training, she spends six months preparing a shoot, decorating metres and metres of cloth with Arabic calligraphy. She covers the walls and floor of her studio with this intricately patterned fabric, and she dresses her models in it, too. Their faces, hands and feet are also adorned with hennaed writing. All this is done using a technique she developed herself - a syringe filled with henna dye.
Every time the clothes are worn, some of the dried henna flakes off and has to be reapplied. Not surprisingly, every shoot is preceded by a day of rehearsing, so that each of her models knows exactly what to expect and no movement is wasted. Henna is a key element in her two recent series of photographs titled Converging Territories and Femmes du Maroc (Women of Morocco). This plant dye marks the milestones of a Moroccan woman's life: it is first applied at puberty, then when she is a bride and later when she has her first child, particularly if it is a boy.
The result is a collection of photographs of great beauty and tranquillity. Anyone who looks on these photographs feels they are seeing an intimate world of female secrets, but without any hint of a voyeuristic gaze. Essaydi's work is well known in the US, but now it is showing in London for the first time as part of a major commercial exhibition of Middle Eastern art put on by Ray Waterhouse, director of the Waterhouse & Dodd gallery.
With auctions in Dubai regularly smashing records for prices, Waterhouse was unsure how many artists would want to sell their work at a gallery in London where prices were unlikely to be as high. "We did not get a single rejection," he says. The result is two parallel exhibitions: 15 well-known and upcoming artists, including Parviz Tanavoli and Charles Hossein Zenderoudi, will be shown in an exhibition called Routes. Essaydi's photographs are showing in a separate exhibition in the gallery next door, to be called Crossroads. A selection of these works can be seen later at the artparis-Abu Dhabi art fair at the Emirates Palace in November.
If there is a theme that unites all these works, it is Arabic script. It appears magnificently in a bronze by Tanavoli of the Farsi word, heech. The three-letter word means "nothing", which Tanavoli playfully turns into something special. Script is integral to the work of Zenderoudi - who holds the auction record for a living Middle Eastern painter at $1.6 million (Dh5.87 million) - and the Tunisian artist and calligrapher Nja Mahdaoui. It also forms the background to the portraits of the Iranian artist Shirin Neshat.
But it is in Essaydi's photographs that cursive script takes over the whole work. Calligraphy is a male preserve, and Essaydi delights in subverting this tradition. Her work is strongly autobiographical, informed by her childhood in Marrakech, her marriage at the age of 16 and then her move to Paris and Boston to study art. She now lives in New York. Her work has never been shown in her native land.
"My work documents my own experience of growing up as an Arab woman within Islamic culture, seen now from the perspective of an artist living in the West and maintaining close ties with her original culture," she says. Her work can best be understood with reference to another exhibition in London which ended recently at the Tate Gallery but is coming to the Sharjah Art Museum in February. The Lure of the East: British Orientalist Painting tells the story of how 19th century British painters projected their fantasies on the Arab world, highlighting the exotic to make up for their greyness of their industrial homeland.
Essaydi has set out to disrupt this "voyeuristic tradition" of artistic depictions of life in the women's quarters. Her women are strong and independent, with no sign of the come-hither looks beloved of Orientalist painters. She has removed the exotic colours, the lavish textiles and the eunuchs. Her women can be seen reclining, but they stare confidently into her lens. They seem firmly in control of their environment.
At first glance, all this might seem no more than a paean to women's empowerment. But it does not take long to detect something unsettling about these pictures. The borders of the images seem to press in on the women, as if they are being squeezed into cells. The lines of Arabic script take on the appearance of strands of barbed wire. As the women's clothes and faces are decorated with the same lettering, their humanity is reduced - they have become like the furniture. Sometimes they are posed as if talking, but they look like they have been silenced. Indeed, one of the women seems to be imploring with her eyes: get me out of here.
The women are strong, yet caged. The key to this paradox lies in Essaydi's life story. At the age of 15, she was sent as punishment to an old house owned by her family to spend a month in silence, with only servants for company. To shoot the pictures in Converging Territories, she returned to the same house in Marrakech, loading the works with the psychological baggage of that silent month. Her models understand that the house is not just a building, but a place of cultural boundaries.
In Essaydi's view, architecture and culture are inseparable in the Arab world - private space being the domain of women, public space of men. Thus her models become the buildings they inhabit. "The women in my photographs are both held within an actual space, and at the same time are confined to their 'proper place', a place of walls and boundaries, space controlled by men," she says. "One only has to look at the continuity between the henna on their bodies and the patterns of the surrounding tiles to see how they have become identified with their surroundings."
Does Essaydi believe that women in the Arab world need "rescuing" from male tyranny, as the Orientalist painters were keen to show? She dismisses any claim to want to enlighten Arab women, or speak for Arab womanhood in general."I am neither victim nor representative," she says. "Any artist trying to speak for her people 'in general' can only dilute her art with generalities." Her work stands out as unabashedly figurative, still something of a rarity in Middle Eastern art. Essaydi does not see herself as breaking any new ground, as there is a long Islamic tradition of miniature painting. In any case, she sees herself as a Western-trained artist. This is not the least of the paradoxes of her work, a product of the tension between Islamic upbringing and Western training.
"It was my exposure to Western art," she says, "that enabled me to re-enter artistically the spaces of my childhood." Routes and Crossroads are on show until Oct 25 at Waterhouse & Dodd, (+44 0207 734 7800, @email:www.modbritart.com). The online catalogue is available at @email:www.artroutes.com.