Our bodies, ourselves

Flesh can be an artist's greatest resource.

Influential feminist artists like Orlan, Hannah Wilke and Adrian Piper have used their bodies - in performance pieces, in photographs and street theater - to illuminating ends to protest narrow standards of beauty, sexual violence or racial stereotypes.

Moroccan-born, Boston-based artist Lalla Essaydi follows in this long-standing tradition. Her installation, Embodiments, at Saltworks Gallery comments upon Islam's appropriation of the female body and the power of its doctrine to reduce or erase the individual.

In a radical transformation of the Saltworks space, 11 fabric panels hang from the gallery ceiling to create a roomlike maze. The airy space suddenly feels constricted and mildly oppressive. The panels are imprinted with photographs of Arab women, naked or clothed in robes and head scarves, whose skin has been covered with calligraphy written in henna. Accompanying the scrolls is a short 16mm film transferred to digital video and narrated by the artist. In dreamy words and images, the film contrasts the feisty, playful behavior of a little girl unencumbered by the "proper" female attire with the behavior of older girls and women who have donned the submissive posture and identity-shrouding dress required by Islamic custom.

Despite its earnestness and worthy examination of female confinement in traditional Islamic culture, Embodiments is ultimately unsatisfying for using such dramatic, monumental devices to make a relatively straightforward statement about limits to female freedom. Despite the grave trappings, the exhibit fails to create the expected awed, solemn response in viewers.

Embodiments is organized by New York-based curator Isolde Brielmaier, who has another project, Maximum Flavor, currently on exhibit at the Atlanta College of Art Gallery. But the Saltworks show feels like a jarring, not necessarily welcome change of focus from the cleaner, analytical curatorial vision of gallery director Brian Holcombe.


Embodiments runs through July 23 at Saltworks Gallery, 635 Angier Ave. Tues.-Sat., noon-5 p.m. 404-876-8000. www.saltworksgallery.com.??

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