Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1800 was followed by a wave of French painters who found themselves fascinated by the mystical and foreign landscapes, and devoted their paintings to documenting them. French Orientalists focused many of their paintings to the people, most particularly the women, of these countries, entering private Islamic female spaces and representing them nude. The paintings of these sacred spaces are then displayed in museums like the Louvre to be admired by more Europeans. Europeans being fascinated by the Orient is nothing new (fashions like Turquerie made caftans and turbans trendy in West Europe in the 16th century), nor has it ended (boho fashion, henna at Coachella, and Princess Jasmine all demonstrate the warped westernized versions of Arab art).
There is a certain sexiness in unwrapping something not meant for you. Maybe it’s the power that comes from it, as France did when it colonized Morocco, where my father was born, or as it continues to do, with its burka and hijab bans. But the French Orientalists visualized this invasion best, with Gerome’s bath scenes or Ingres’s disfigured female proportions.
My work aims to return some agency and privacy to the subjects of Orientalist paintings. In Islam, the most highly respected religious figures are forbidden to be reduced to an image, and I wanted to pay the same respect to them. I would begin to re-represent these figures, but then alter them in their language of art; Islamic pattern work, most inspired by the tiles that one might find in a mosque. I cut, conceal, cover, or otherwise change them to make their bodies harder for a viewer to digest, as opposed to the exposed bodies presented by French Orientalists on a platter.
I’ve also begun to explore what it means to be an Islamic object. I think about the Islamic patterns plastered on Western buildings, like the Altria Theater or the Hagia Sophia, and I think about myself and my own appearance. Can an object be transformed by just its exterior? If I paint a bottle that once held alcohol (something inherently unislamic) with the pattern I saw in a mosque, what does it become? If my dark hair and thick eyebrows lures Arabs to come up to me and start speaking Arabic, but I lack the language to respond, what does that mean for me?
Nadia Msalek is an artist currently pursuing her BFA in Painting and Printmaking at VCU Arts. She is a recipient of the 2023-2024 VMFA Fellowship and has been included in several group exhibitions including Your Place at the Table at 311 Gallery, Raleigh, NC, and Making the Cut at Shoebox Gallery, where she won best in show. Her most recent body of work explores French Orientalism and its modern manifestations, along with how it relates to her own identity as a first generation American. Nadia is particularly interested in the way the appearance of exteriors can betray interiors, and how censorship can both restrain and liberate. She is inspired by Islamic tile work, Moroccan photographers like Hassan Hajajj and Lalla Essaydi, and other SWANA painters including Amir H Fallah and Nadia Waheed.
La Grande Odalisque 2022 Oil and gold coin on canvas 28″ x 58”
From Gerome 2022 Cut paper on Moroccan gandoura 36″ x 50″
Gérôme’s Bathhouse, 2023 Oil and gold coin on canvas 50” x 30”
Hysteria 2022 Oil on Canvas
From Ingres 2022 Cut paper on prayer mat 30″ x 48″
Cleopatra 2023 Oil on canvas 24” x 18”
Feminine Interior Spaces 2022 Acrylic and adhesive mirror sheets on plexiglass 32″ x 44″
Circassian Woman 2022 Oil on canvas 38″ x 20″
Trade 2023 Oil on canvas 16” x 20”
Bisharin Warrior 2022 Oil on canvas 38″ x 20″
Hair 2023 Oil and carpet fringe on canvas 10” x 10”
What’s for Dinner? 2023 Oil on canvas 20”x20”
Beach Carpet 2023 Oil and carpet fringe on canvas 18″ x 14″
Vessel Portraits 2023 Oil on found glass bottles
Patterns from Gerome 2022 Oil on canvas