Ghada Amer: Naughty and Nice Essay

06/01/2005 - 07/16/2005

Download PDF

Naughty and Nice

Raechell Smith

There is an absolute rightness in the timing and strategies of Ghada Amer’s work. In theme, style, and technique, Amer responds to various facets of authority and tradition with curiosity, courage, and, sometimes, a dash of cynicism. The terms bold, subversive, transgressive, and radical appear frequently in discussions of her work, as do words like poetic, alluring, provocative, meditative, and sensual. Linked to many of the issues prevalent in contemporary art discourse today – feminism, post-feminism, transculturalism, post-colonialism, and globalism –  the work of Ghada Amer is deliberately both naughty and nice. These values may be seemingly at odds, admittedly, but are worthy of and reward further consideration.

Amer’s art contains elements of both personal and universal experiences – of inconsistencies and inequities, of the multiple agencies that condition the construction of gender and attitudes toward sexuality in different cultures, and of the myriad cultural codes that we are meant to honor and the taboos we are meant to avoid. “Amer makes work that challenges us in aesthetically and intellectually compelling ways. Her art is simultaneously poetic and powerful, uniting seductive formal elements and socially relevant messages, which are often particularly germane to the placement and empowerment of women, on both local and global levels.”1

Ghada Amer was born in Egypt, but she experienced many different cultures in her youth as she moved with the Amer family to her father’s various diplomatic posts. She lived in France as a young adult, receiving her BFA and MFA degrees from the Ecole des Beaux-Art in Nice, and since 1995, has lived in New York.  Her biography reveals a range of personal experiences she has encountered in an effort to assimilate and attain a sense of belonging, regardless of geographic location.  “I think my attraction to contradictions is a direct product of my upbringing. When you are young and you live only in one culture, you think that this is reality. You think this country, or world, or culture you are in is how things are. And things should always be like this because this is all you know. When you are young and you go to another culture, you see the same people living another reality with the same conviction, and you just wonder who is right. It can be painful, of course. You think that someone must be wrong, and then you realize there are two different ways of seeing something.”2

In October 2004, Ghada Amer visited Kansas City for the first time to discuss the commission of new works as part of her upcoming residency and one-person exhibition at the Kansas City Art Institute. From the outset of our artist-curator relationship, I admired and appreciated her honesty, the direct manner in which she articulated her needs and desires, and, above all, her extraordinary sense of humor. This, I thought to myself, is a confident and self-assured woman whose beliefs and boldness can be found in her art.

Over the course of the following four months, Amer traveled numerous times between her home in Harlem, New York and Kansas City as she and a group of 15 Art Institute students and Kansas City-based artists, enthusiastic and committed collaborators, worked to complete two ambitious, large-scale paintings in time for their debut at the Artspace in June.

It was fascinating to watch the paintings emerge, changing drastically with each new layer and technique. One of the canvases, created in concert with friend and long-time collaborator Reza Farkhondeh, was transformed from a riotous color landscape of blues, greens, purples, and reds into an almost black monochrome ground. Immediately, the references to Abstract Expressionist paintings cited often by commentators on Amer’s work came to mind, particularly the absorbing, meditative, somber compositions of Mark Rothko and Ad Reinhardt.

Soon, though, a grid of cotton string stretched vertically and horizontally across the surface of the painting prompted the introduction of a carefully traced figure, fragmented in her pose, taken as all Amer’s female figures directly from the pages of a pornographic magazine, and repeated as a motif in a grid of 25 frames. Beginning at the top left corner of the canvas, the double movement of figure and shifting frame cascades down the picture plane, top to bottom, referencing the filmic image as if the eye of a camera is moving simultaneously across the surface of the painting and down the length of the woman’s body.

The canvas, then unstretched and rolled unceremoniously on two monumental cardboard tubes, endured meticulous and laborious needlework as each diminutive figure was embroidered with pastel thread, undergoing, once again, a transformation as the eroticized form of an anonymous female body was abstracted and veiled by the loose ends of thread, a deliberate mimicking of the painterly drip, made famous by Jackson Pollock, which provokes Amer’s own delight. The canvas is stretched again and the final layer in this complex affair fixes the loose and hair-like threads into a place of permanence with a layer of transparent gel medium.

There is, however, a quiet sense that this isn’t all there is – that there is more to come. In the body of work created by Ghada Amer since the early nineties – paintings, drawings, sculpture, and the temporary outdoor environments designed specifically for navigation and interaction – one is certain to find complexity lurking just beyond the surface of things.

On one level, the tactile, painterly surface of her delicately embroidered canvases, Amer positions, in close proximity, elements of fine art tradition, particularly a male-associated gestural abstraction, with elements of vernacular craft and feminine-associated embroidery. This unique combination of painterly surfaces overlaid with simplified line drawings of autoerotic female figures, and her use of embroidered thread as a viable alternative to paint and pencil has become Ghada Amer’s contested signature style. Her astute awareness of art’s history and its discourse is interwoven in these paintings for which she has gained international acclaim.

On another level, though, by design and cultural proximity, subsequent layers in Amer’s provocative works are rich in juxtapositions and the contradictions that evince elements of tension, discomfort, dissatisfaction, and perhaps even rebellion in regard to the conditions and experiences of women in a global twenty-first century.  In an exploration into the lives of women, Amer continues to grapple with the confusing and somewhat unresolved dilemmas of the women’s movement and the complex lives women lead today.

As Amer has stated, “I had to find a way to address extremism – both feminism and religious fanaticism and their parallel problems with the body and its relationship with seduction.”3 Amer likes working with what she calls a language of women, employing techniques like embroidery in the paintings, references to fashion and articles of clothing in the sculpture, and gardening in the outdoor installations. She often cites a gesture of “double submission” in her work, referring to the appropriation of crafts, most often associated with domains of domesticity and femininity, and the appropriation of the sexualized female body, considered taboo by the standards of Islam certainly, but an equally contested arena within feminist discourse in the west, where the boundaries between sexuality, obscenity, and immorality are all too often blurred.

In the early nineties, Amer created an embroidered portrait series of women at work. Replacing pencil with thread and needle, images depicting women engaged in mundane household chores were Amer’s response to images she found in an Egyptian fashion magazine, Venus.4 Coinciding with the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt and elsewhere, women were encouraged to re-veil and the magazine’s photomontages combined images of veiled women with more-than-conservative adaptations of western fashions, encouraging the new, modern Muslim woman. The combination of image and embroidery didn’t satisfy Amer, though, and she turned to pornographic magazines to find a more contrasting subject to voice her frustration regarding this shift away from liberation and sexual freedom, toward control and suppression.

Amer has refused to leave the task of creating empowered images of women to the mythmakers, repeatedly adopting her images directly from popular culture, from sources both secular and religious.  As if a reminder was needed that “without women’s speech, we fall back on texts and myths, prescriptive and overgeneralized,”5 Amer has mined these sources for themes and ideas to challenge and champion.

In many ways, this body of work is an ongoing contemplation of the multiple facets of womanhood and “like many feminist artists of the 90s, Amer sees herself taking back sensuality, in a sense stealing the image of the stereotypical sexualized woman to use as a source of empowerment and pleasure.”6 She undermines the male privilege of the gaze, desire and pleasure, claiming these qualities as the rightful purview of women and then adds to this mix of ingredients notions of belonging, absence, self-reliance, loneliness, love, loss, disappointment, and courage.

The Kansas City paintings – The Big Black Kansas City Painting- RFGA and Knotty but Nice – revisit the themes and cast of characters found elsewhere in Amer’s work, including the paintings The Tree, The Girl, and The MiceThe Sad Painting/Diane, and the sculpture, Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves BarbieKnotty but Nice, one of the most conceptually intriguing of all of Amer’s canvases created to date, intermingles five larger-than-life moments of female ecstasy with the shock- and awe-filled gazes of four on looking dwarfs, plucked unexpectedly from the fairy tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, and plopped into this most surprising set of circumstances.  Fairy tales and children’s books are another familiar source of gender-oriented imagery for Amer, whose characters, she knows, are also agents in the fabrication and legacy of unlikely legends and love stories that condition our beliefs and our sexual identities.

Since 1997, Amer’s artistic practice has expanded in scope and material, evolving in more political and conceptual directions, with the creation of temporary outdoor installations the artist refers to as the Garden Projects. Commissioned by curators for international venues, including Spain, France, Korea, and Panama, six of these projects are represented in a selection of photographs and schematic drawings, exhibited for the first time in the United States.

With only one exception, the Garden Projects in the exhibition employ written text, like many of Amer’s sculptural works. Women’s Qualities is like calligraphy in topiary, where the sown plant forms flower and replace the needle and embroidered thread that once replaced the paint and brush. It is in these works, perhaps, as a mature artist, that Amer comes closest to echoing aspects of Islamic art where the text becomes the image.

For Women’s Qualities, Amer asked museum visitors to describe the qualities they associated with women and transcribed their thoughts into sculpture. In Love Park, created in French and English versions, Amer has created a promenade along which are placed bisected benches and signage with quotations selected by the artist on the universal complexities of love and relationships.

In many of the Garden Projects, Amer is more directly communicative and the messages take on the political, social, geographic, and/or social issues of a given site. Chinese Proverbs, for example, was created in collaboration with street artists in Panama City, installed on billboards throughout the city. The artist selected a proverb, such as “Love of money silences truth,” and a site for the proverb’s placement, in this case near a political institution, and allowed the street painters to interpret the message in their own illustrational style.7 For a site along the Rambla de la Raval in Barcelona, the artist was asked to intervene along a public promenade historically associated with prostitution and high crime as part of the city’s effort to beautify and revitalize the area with art.

Equal parts smart and ornery, Amer’s response was to create sandboxes in the shape of larger than life letterforms that stretched out along the Rambla, inviting to passersby but legible as a statement only from a distance and with a bird’s eye perspective. The message, taken by the artist from a book of statistics, addressed the plight of the local area and the surface solution of beautification to solve social ills and what still constitutes a universal conundrum of gender inequity in terms of economics: Today 70% of the Poor in the World are Women.

Represented in the exhibition by schematic drawings, the final two Garden Projects, Yin Yang and Happily Ever After, were planned, in part, during the artist’s residency at the Artspace and will be installed in their respective locations during summer of 2005. For the Venice Biennale, opening in June, Yin Yang incorporates a pond in the shape of the symbol for balance and equanimity with flora and fauna.

Created for the Queens Museum of Art in New York, Happily Ever After, a topiary of fragrant roses for contemplation and to be enjoyed from a circular bench in the center, will also be installed in June. And just as it does in the fantasy tales of our youth, this seems as good an ending as there is ever likely to be. Happily ever after, Ghada. With love, Kansas City.

[1] Laurie Ann Farrell, Looking Both Ways: Art of the Contemporary African Diaspora.  New York: Museum for African Art, 2003, p. 60.
[2] David O’Brien and David Prochaska, Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists. Champaign, Illinois: Krannert Art Museum, 2004, p. 38.
[3] Barbara Pollock, “The New Look of Feminism,” Art News, September, 2001, p. 134.
[4] Ghada Amer, visiting lecture at the Kansas City Art Institute, October 2004.
[5] Carole S. Vance, ed., Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. London: Pandora Press, 1992, p. 6.
[6] H. H. Arnason, History of Modern Art. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, Inc., 2004, p. 740.
[7] Rosa Martinez, “Ghada Amer’s Gardens,” in Ghada Amer. Valencia, Spain: IVAM Institut Valencia d’Art Modern, 2004, p. 43.