Born in Casablanca, and now based in Paris, Rim Battal draws attention to the female form through her photography, focusing in on the way society expects women to present themselves through ritual and ceremony. In two series Les Mariees Liens [The bride’s links] and Alterer/Desalterer [to alter/to unalter], she presents distinctly feminine images that comment on marriage traditions and rituals surrounding womanhood and female sexuality.
Her 2019 series, Alterer/Desalterer, depicts several images of a woman holding a partially peeled orange. Black threads are sewn through the skin where it has been torn, attempting to close it back together, but it refuses to be shut. The fruit is then passed from one hand to another, wrapped up in pearls and placed on top of a champagne glass. Appearing as a metaphor for the female anatomy, the orange presents itself as something that is in the hands of someone else, whose appearance and purpose is defined by another.
In an earlier series, Les-mariees liens (2014), Rim shows a woman dressed for her wedding day. Thick kohl lines her eyes, henna covers her hands, and she is dripping in sparkly clothes and jewellery. But she looks like she has been crying, her wrists are tied together like handcuffs by her jewelled chains. On her wedding bed she lowers her head, hides behind her veil, and wraps her arms around her limbs as she clasps her legs shut. The images question the links created by marriage as an institution and as a ritual.
Commenting on the female body from a female perspective, Rim explores forms of oppression can be enacted through ritual. Her subjects, who include female friends and herself, seem dejected or in pain, drawing attention to the harsh impact that female-oriented traditions and rituals have on their bodies and mental well-being. Rim once wrote of the female body as a territory that has been colonized by religion, society, advertising, tradition and superstition. In her photography, Rim removes the rose-tinted layer of positivity associated with these traditions and superstitions, including marriage, to expose instead the struggle and torment that they often entail.
We spoke to Rim about why she turned to photography, the women in her work, and the importance of empowering female sexuality.
How do marriage, honor and virginity feature in your work?
Marriage is present in my photography series, Les mariees-Liens, which I designed and produced in a studio while taking part in an art residency. As for virginity, I speak of it in an equally frontal way but with words. From January to April, I published “L’oeil des loups” on the website, Hymen redéfinitions. It is a web soap novel where I tell how I was forced to perform a virginity test when I was 19. It’s very dramatic and very funny at the same time. I’m quite proud I did that actually because it is not a fiction or a creative thing: everything is true. It took me more than a week to get out of my bed after I finished writing that testimony. But now I feel lighter somehow. So I invited every woman who had to live something similar to speak up.
Why do you think it’s important to discuss the female body in your work?
I actually never meant to discuss the female body, specifically. I just started photography one day, and was very interested in faces and hands. I have a slight kink for hands, so I really enjoyed making portraits of my friends, my female friends especially. Men’s faces never interested me actually. They are a bit invisible somehow. I don’t see them. As a woman, I generally avoid looking at a cis-hetero man’s face for more then two seconds. Otherwise they might think I’m in love with them.
In the beginning it was about faces and hair, and making portraits of my female friends. As I was doing that, I felt some strange emotions that I couldn’t name at the time. I wanted to see their bodies, too. I wanted to see their shape, how they are different from mine when naked. It’s true that in Morocco we have hammams where we can see different bodies naked, but I have a very bad eyesight and contact lenses were not popular then. So in the hammam I only could see ghosts without my glasses. I was naked, every other woman – at least the ones with good vision – could see my body but I could not see theirs.
Later on, I started with nude photography. It was all secret and I lost all of these first works because they were so illicite. I was also scared. I thought it was not important work because it did not resemble the nude photography I saw here and there. Now I know that those were from a man’s point of view.
Today one can manage to publish nude photography on the internet under an alias, but when I started (circa 2007), the internet was not as developed and approachable as it is now. And the art scene was very small, and focused on a very small number of galleries and very few festivals.
At some point I started looking at women’s bodies because I wanted them; I desired them. That’s also when I realized that it was impossible for me to photograph them properly when naked. I covered them with caftans and jewels and hand writing because I could not allow myself to desire the subject I was photographing, unlike a cis-het man. They photograph, desire, and try to f*ck.
My own body and desire constrained me as a photographer, and that’s why I decided to use my own body in my work, as I did in [Alterer/Desalterer]. I don’t desire myself so I can use it as I want without feeling guilty or questioning my professionalism, without being afraid of making my model feel uncomfortable.
“Rituals are set up to create an artificial link where there is no obvious bond. Rituals become oppressive when we are afraid that love fails to create common, solidarity, community.”
I got a kind of sexual undertone from the images of oranges [Alterer/Desalterer]. Was that intentional? If so, what are they communicating?
There is. I spoke somehow about the restrictions and the constraints of women’s bodies. Now I want to speak about erotism, mighty and forceful women’s desire. Hidden women’s desire. That’s why there is my body covered, orange juice dripping in the crotch of my pink satin gown.
What can you tell me about Les mariées-liens [the brides ties]? Who is the woman pictured in Les mariees-liens? Can you speak to the emotion she is baring to the camera?
If I say anything about the series, it would prevent the public from personalizing it with their own vécu, or experience of it. It will be my own and only piece of art, like a tattoo. If I wanted it to have just one meaning I would not show it. I would keep it private, not hang it in a gallery.
The woman is a friend, Lamy. She is one of the smartest and sharpest people I know. She’s not a model, she’s a real woman, and being sharp and smart is not a gift for her but is hell in itself. When you are an intelligent and educated woman from a non-rich, non-privileged background, life is very tough.
Lamy is postponing suicide, as a lot of people are doing.
I am doing as well, and I don’t know for which mysterious reason (cowardness? convention?) but we manage to perpetuate life, to keep things as they are, clean, try to make entropy less devastating. But living on earth is like living in a trou noir. We only keep on falling. In a black hole the body stretches until it’s broken and disintegrated. On earth, the body, physically, does the opposite: it collapses on itself but it’s quite the same process. We fall into the black hole, we are born, and then we keep on falling. Maybe we can even manage to have some kind of sociability in a black hole. Who knows. We build things and beliefs as we do in this physical world because we want them so badly.
So yes, Lamy was feeling terrible because I put her in these traditional clothes, which are a symbol of patriarchy and oppression for her. It’s like taking an atheist in a mosque for the sake of art. You can’t ignore the anguish.
Is it the pain that gendered rituals cause that attracts you to them? What draws you to study them through your work?
These rituals must be studied to understand what are their origins and why did they become so oppressive. I believe that every sh**ty thing had a virtuous intention behind it at some point, but somehow people always turn to vanity, oppression and domination. The problem with domination is that it only takes one person who has a dominant behavior to turn another’s life into hell itself, but it takes all humanity aspiring for peace to have a fair and peaceful world to fix it. This will never happen. That’s why the best thing to do is to work on empowering our varying sexualities and make it as beautiful as possible and upheld by consent of every partner. Anything beyond that is illusory.
Rituals are set up to create an artificial link where there is no obvious bond. Rituals become oppressive when we are afraid that love fails to create common, solidarity, community. Rituals are oppressive when they are no longer in tune with their time.
What do you mean when you say ‘enhancing sexuality’? What scale or level are you imagining this happening? Does still-photography as a medium allow you to achieve this goal? If so, how?
Emancipating sexuality on every level will allow us to bring equality, equal pleasure, and transparency to our own beds and intimate relationships. By not ‘playing virgins’ anymore or ‘seeking purity’, by not being scared of our desires, we can explore and develop deep respect for mutual consent and other people’s bodies and different shapes. On a societal scale, we need to stand against everything political that tries to interfere with our erotism, everything that aims to use our genitals to rule or install an oppression based on shaming sexuality.
And what are you working on now?
I’m working on a photo series about all the artifices we use to be “a woman”. A photo book featuring these photos will be out in November. A poetry book, Les quatrains de l’All-inclusive, will be published in February at Le Castor Astral (a French publishing house). I also have a collective show in August at Little Big Gallerie, Montmartre, Paris, titled Carmina. And finally, I’m writing a novel that takes place in Casablanca, Morocco.
I also published this feuilleton, which is actually my own story about how I had to prove to my own family that I was still a ‘virgin’ when I was 19 years old. It’s in French, one can read it here.