By Beth U.
Ghada Amer’s paintings give off heat. They vibrate. In the quiet interior of Cheim & Read, a gallery on East 24th Street in Manhattan, they moan. I am grateful that the gallery is nearly empty; I need to be alone with these paintings. It’s early May and I am here to see Amer’s latest exhibition Rainbow Girls. Known for her embroidered “paintings,” Amer repurposes images from pornography and popular culture and transforms them from quick snapshots of easy consumption to labors of deliberation. This show consists of 15 paintings and three sculptures made within the last two years.
I ease into the main room of the gallery and stand a few feet from the title piece, Rainbow Girl. From this distance, the painting is a riot of thread-clots. Gel medium battens down flamboyant florets of green, yellow, pink and blue thread. I walk toward the painting until the clumps reveal precise stitches. Needle-punctures trace a stenciled letter in acrylic paint: N. Stitched letters become words: NOT BORN. Beneath these layers—thread and needle-punctures, acrylic paint and gel medium—I can see Amer’s pencil work. I stay here a long time, lost in her peek-a-boo game.
I back away from the painting until meticulous arteries of thread soften into a portrait. A woman’s seductive glance, a smirk perhaps, calls me back in for another close look, but it is an uncomfortable one. After seeing her from afar, this up-close scrutiny feels too intimate despite how Amer obscures her imagery with “knots, webs and skeins of embroidery thread.”[i] As I gaze upon Rainbow Girl, I wonder: who gazes out? I move to the far wall. From this distance, it is difficult to discern Amer’s labor. The image reverts, too easily, to its original intent. When does the intimate become the iconographic and when, in turn, does this become consumption?
Finally, I stand in the middle distance. Here, I transgress the “looking in” and the “looking out” gaze—a trick at the heart of Amer’s project. Here, the thread colors—brash up close—soften to pastel hues and the stenciled words become a sentence: ONE IS NOT BORN BUT RATHER BECOMES A WOMAN. This middle distance is perhaps the place where becoming a woman happens, where interiority plays against exteriority even as no distinction between the two is truly possible. To stand here titillates.
Amer repurposes pornography but also iconic feminist statements, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s above, for much the same reason. Slogans can provoke. They can incite. They can also become a bite of easy consumption. In Norah 2014, we see Margaret Sanger’s NO WOMAN CAN CALL HERSELF FREE WHO DOES NOT CONTROL HER OWN BODY. The text walks across Norah’s open mouth. In Amer’s rendition, pornography—meant for outside consumption—and feminist text—meant to give voice to a shared interiority shaped by outside consumption—refuse to polarize. Instead, we have a shifty middle ground, a tense playing field.
Amer calls her repurposed images of women her “friends.” That these “friends” reference a visual canon of sexualized postures speaks to their violence as commodities: the sublimation of woman for object. Yet, for Amer, ambiguity reigns. In previous work, Amer’s “friends” pleasure themselves or have sex with one another (Lisa and Britney 2009 or E-Hayden 2009). Voyeuristic, these pieces can just as easily be “read”—in the ever-variant response that spectatorship provides—as triumphs of women’s sexual agency. In Amer’s hands, pornographic images become a vehicle to assert women’s pleasure and women’s voice. With imagery and text, the seductive/seduced woman both thinks and speaks. For Amer, the paintings also become a vehicle to assert artistic voice.
Born in Egypt in 1963, Amer was raised and educated in France from the age of 11. As an undergraduate and later graduate student at Villa Arson in Nice in the late 1980s, Amer was denied entry to male-only painting classes, and thus to the male-dominated history of western painting.[ii] Amer’s work is part of a cross-cultural feminist conversation meant to trouble value distinctions between art and craft, or high art and work considered artisanal, as well as the expertise given to male artists who use the female form as fodder. When women artists use material associated with craft, such as fiber, critics continue to devalue their work, despite decades-long feminist agitation against the art-craft hierarchy.[iii]
Amer has spoken of her use of embroidery not as a choice per se, but because her mother, a chemist in Egypt, taught herself and then her daughters how to stitch a professional suit:
“I thought it was a good medium to speak about women. It was an activity where, when I was growing up, women would gather and sew together — my mother and all of her female friends, my grandmother, the grandmothers of all the neighbors of our house. But all of the designers were men, which was very annoying. And painting has historically been male-dominated; in my art history classes, there are no references to any females, just men, men, men, men. So I thought this was a good way to talk about women and language … That’s why I wanted to paint with sewing it, but out of necessity, not out of loving the craft.”[iv]
Just as she uses thread against its gendered domestic connotations, Amer uses images of sexualized women against the categories meant to contain them. In the western art history canon and in the pornography industry, women become objects of inspiration, profit, and pleasure for viewers. Women-as-objects have provided men the means to establish expertise—as artists, physicians, consumers, and policy-makers to name a few. Amer’s paintings frustrate these lineages for they refuse to satisfy a consuming gaze: the women do not remain passive. And Amer, as artist, reasserts a kind of control (perhaps freedom) over these images in her reevaluation of them.
In Mandy 2014, Alanis Morissette’s I SEE MY BODY AS AN INSTRUMENT NOT AN ORNAMENT rolls and breaks across the sea-washed outline of a prone woman. Amer dissolves the icon into pleasure, laden and luxurious.
In this and other pieces, Amer line-breaks feminist slogans, perhaps to fragment their symbolic and assumed catchall utility. It takes a moment to visually trace the slogan marching through the portrait and to digest its message. This tactic is also apparent in Belle 2014 in which Arabic text becomes, for non-Arabic readers, literally untranslatable. In black thread on a white background, the text reads: “Women revolt against the East, revolt against the West, revolt against the North, revolt against the South, revolt against the body politics and be the brain of the world.” A woman’s face is barely discernible underneath the text.
In some pieces, Amer forsakes portraiture altogether and words appear alone, running to the edges of the canvas. Sunset with Words RFGA 2013, with Rosanne Barr’s statement NOBODY GIVES YOU POWER YOU JUST TAKE IT, brings to my mind the work of book artist Johanna Drucker.
In their very materiality, the construction and deconstruction of words refract power, including—most potently—the language we use to talk about sexuality. Perhaps what Amer intimates is Hélène Cixous’ reading of Jacques Derrida’s “phallogocentrism”–a critique of how masculinist language colonizes feminine modes of expression.
Textual interplay reappears in The Words I Love the Most 2012, one of three sculptural pieces also included in the exhibit. The sculptures look like pencil lines pulled from paper, inverted, and twisted into shapes: one spherical, one egg-like, and one squashed into a heart. Wrought of stainless steel or bronze, they remain lace-like. In The Words I Love the Most 2012, the text-as-sculpture is Arabic, written from the inside. While entirely see-through, the sculpture remains impenetrable. In Blue Bra Girls 2012, we see autoerotic portraits of women through the sculpture’s pencil-like script. The revolving interplay of form and text become clear only when one looks within.
After wandering the gallery, I return to the middle ground in front of Rainbow Girl 2014. Amer’s work, to me, is about what it means to take in and be shaped by the outside; it is about our own embodiment when the outside and the inside are indecipherable. It is also about how we see ourselves, and how we see others. In wider enactments of subjugation, pleasure remains and agency exists, just as feminism rests on multiple subjectivities even within the same person. Ambiguity and deliberation play off each other, allowing Amer’s creations to escape a pat critique of (male) fantasy. Amer explains: “All of this work is for me, to empower myself more than really empower the woman. I am not here with a message to teach about anybody else’s experience, I had enough problem and difficulty with my own. You know what I mean (laughs)? How did we all, like, people, man, woman mostly, Jewish, Christian get into this terrible situation where our body became our enemy, so repressed and so miserable?”[v]
[i] Press Release, Ghada Amer: Rainbow Girls. Cheim & Read. New York. 2014.
[ii] See Helaine Posner’s essay on Ghada Amer in The Reckoning: Women Artists of the New Millennium, published by Prestel in 2013.
[iii] See Elissa Auther’s book String, Felt, Thread: The Hierarchy of Art and Craft in American Art published by the University of Minnesota Press in 2010.