It’s been a while since I’ve been on a road trip.
Oh, I’m not talking about those road trips of long ago, but rather a tamer one, with la familia packed into a minivan. No, I’m not ashamed. Actually I never did take many road trips, most of my wild journeys involving instead trains and planes.
In any event we headed to the land of taxation without representation where we scooped up the prodigal son and explored with him the wilds of the National Mall and its lovely museums.
How incredible it is to have access, free and open, to such treasures.
We were with, of course, our beloved visitor from afar, for whom the trip was one of endless firsts. She had never before walked for hours (and has the blisters to prove it) and was a wee bit disappointed that the closest we could get her to the White House allowed for an instagram of her head with a teeny tiny speck of white to her left, far in the distance. For those who remember what it was like pre 9/11 the changes are felt all the more intensely, and sadly.
One of the more magical moments—at least for me—of our trip was a glimpse of the work of Lalla Essaydi, the Moroccan-born NY-based artist whose brilliant work is on exhibit through February at the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
Essaydi’s large-format painterly photographs reinterpret the Arab woman not as the embodiment of Orientalist fantasies but as a multifaceted interrogation of this world which she wants everyone to know does not exist. Her women are grandiose and graceful, often staring out with thoughtful defiance from the backgrounds of tiled mosaic and calligraphic swirls of henna which not only hold their stories but which they themselves seem to write (actually their words come from the artist’s personal journals).
How curious it was to lead my visitor—who like the artist represents the intersection of old and new, of east and west, of tradition and modernity—into the installation titled “Revisions,” under a sign that indicated that “the content in this portion of the exhibition may not be appropriate for all audiences. Visitor discretion is advised.” (A phrase which seemed oddly inappropriate to me…why should these images require a warning when others do not?) I felt I needed to take her in, and am glad I did.
My visitor is young, and not used to looking at art, at nudes, let alone an art which holds images which at first glance may seem familiar to her yet at second are clearly not. She hurried through with flushed cheeks while I would have liked to have lingered a bit longer, to take in the space, the images so powerfully flanking its walls.
“I am dreaming about freedom and don’t know how to talk about it. I am staring at the book and not sure what language I am supposed to speak. When a book is translated, it loses something in the process and what am I but generations of translations? I stand guilty outside and I stand guilty inside, profoundly buried in my translation, panting behind the words that are carried along by vital forces far greater than my own. I am a book that has no ending. Each page I write could be the first.”
Essaydi has described her work as her own story, “intersecting with the presence and absence of boundaries; of history, gender, architecture, and culture; that mark spaces of possibility and limitation.” It is, I suppose the story of all young women on the cusp of adulthood, faced with expectations and promise, facing a world ripe with possibilities yet littered with limits visible and hidden.
Our last stop was to see the sharks in the Baltimore aquarium, which made quite an impression, but perhaps even more impressive was the harbor so full of happy tourists. There is a theory that Americans are like oversized kids, jolly and in search of entertainment. It certainly seemed the case on that sunny Sunday.
We were able to escape the crowds, as well as the sharks by slipping into one exhibit, overlooked it seems by the masses, yet the most beautiful of all.
They make my heart sing.