Threads: Ghada amer’s embroidery-paintings

Threads: Ghada amer’s embroidery-paintings

photos: courtesy of cheim & read, new york
interviewed by Haema Sivanesan

Ghada Amer works across a range of media and techniques including prints and drawing, painting, bronze and stainless steel sculpture, installation, performance, garden design, and most recently, ceramics. Despite the breadth of her work, Amer describes herself as a painter, and is best recognised in Europe and North America for her ’embroidery-paintings’ addressing feminist themes including gender stereotypes, love and romance, sexuality, desire and pleasure, taboos and transgressions.

Ghada Amer works across a range of media and techniques including prints and drawing, painting, bronze and stainless steel sculpture, installation, performance, garden design, and most recently, ceramics. Despite the breadth of her work, Amer describes herself as a painter, and is best recognised in Europe and North America for her

’embroidery-paintings’ addressing feminist themes including gender stereotypes, love and romance, sexuality, desire and pleasure, taboos and transgres­sions. An important motivation in her work has been to find a language of painting that could be described as uniquely feminine and assertive, to address and ‘de­mythologise’ a history of art that has been relentlessly paternalistic.

Important works in Amer’s oeuvre have probed this history, either through her various explorations of the representation of women in popular and visual culture, or through her ‘dialogue’ with prominent white, male painters such as Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell and Franz Kline. Included in these feminist investigations are projects examining aspects of Arab culture, often engaging with widely known romantic stories, for example The Story of Layla and Mcgnun, or One Thousand and One Nights-, or the Enryclo­pedia of Pleasure (fawami’ al-ladhadha), a 10th Century Arabic text examining concepts of women’s pleasure. In the early 2000’s Amer became well known for her larger-than-life erotic canvases, re-appropriating pornographic imagery to represent women as actively possessing their bodies and capable of activating their own forms of pleasure. A recurring concern in Amer’s work is to validate female and feminine forms of expression, by putting herself in dialogue with those histories, narratives, images and experiences that oppress women, albeit in subconscious ways. Her collaborations with artist Reza Farkhondeh expand and re-configure this female-male dialogue, inverting or indeed, subverting, conventionalised gender hierarchies. Within this project of enquiry, dialogue and critique, Amer’s approach to thread-work as painting, ‘figures’ a feminine position, securing the agency of the artist in a way that conventional painting or drawing never could.

Cinq Femmes Au Travail. Embroidery on canvas in 4 parts. 24 3 / 4 x 21 3 / 4 inches. 1991

Amer was born in Cairo, Egypt in 1963. Her family moved to France in 1974, and she completed a Master of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, Nice, in 1989. She currently lives and works in New York. Her work has been shown widely in significant venues and exhibi­tions, including at the Musee d’Art Contemporain de Montreal (2012), MACRO, Rome (2007) and De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam (2002). Her work has been included in the Moscow Biennale (2009), the Biennale of Sydney (2006), the Venice Biennale (2005), and the Whitney Biennial (2000). She was the subject of a major survey exhibition at the Brooklyn Art Museum, New York in 2008.

Cinq Femmes Au Travail. Embroidery on canvas in 4 parts. 24 3 / 4 x 21 3 / 4 inches. 1991

This interview introduces Ghada Amer’s work for ]amini readers, focusing on her use of embroidery as a ‘feminine language for painting’. This interview was conducted by email in July, 2015.

Ghada, thank you for this interview; we are delighted to feature your work in this issue of Jamini. I’d like to begin by asking you about your early years: you were born in Cairo, but spent your art school years in France, during the mid to late 1980’s. What was it like to live in France as an Egyptian woman? Were you aware of the feminist intellectual discussions that were emerging in France at this time?

Cinq Femmes Au Travail. Embroidery on canvas in 4 parts 24 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches. 1991

I left Egypt in 197 4. I was 11 years old. I was not aware of feminism, I was too young then but I remember that I wanted to be a man because I was noticing that they had much more freedom than women, especially [adult] women. I was not really aware, after that, of any “feminist intellectual ideas”. In France if you dared say that you were a feminist you were almost accused of being a “terrorist”!

Cinq Femmes Au Travail. Embroidery on canvas in 4 parts 24 3/4 x 21 3/4 inches. 1991

I went to Boston for a semester in 1987, while I was studying art at Villa Arson, Nice, France. This is when I discovered that it was okay to be a feminist. It made me happy. When I got back, though, I had no one to talk to!

To live in France as an Egyptian woman was okay. The problem was not being an Egyptian or a woman. The problem was that I was an Arab. I encountered a lot of racism, I got beaten on the street once, and spat on by people insulting me as a “dirty Arab”. I hated it, but I had a lot of nice, loving French friends as well.

You were already exploring issues of women’s roles in your early works. Can you tell us about your early paintings? I’m especially interested in the relationship that you found at that time between painting and embroidery.

Encyclopedia of Pleasure . Canvas, gold thread on a cardboard frame . Dimensions vriable . 2001

I started thinking about the relationship between embroidery and painting two years after I graduated. I made my first embroidered piece in 1991 and I called it Cinq Femmes au Travail (Five Women At Work) it is a quadryptic showing a woman at a supermarket shopping for food, another one cooking, the third one caring for a child, the fourth one cleaning. There was no fifth painting as an object, but the fifth one was me (the artist, the woman) embroidering the pieces. It was my statement. What I wanted was to invent a feminine language for painting, because all through art history, painting is dominated by men. Through my education, [ all] through school, I had never seen a woman painter [being discussed] in art history classes.

How did you learn to sew? And are there specific embroi­dery techniques that you use to make your work?

My mom taught me to sew. She loves clothing and in the 60’s and 70’s it was much cheaper to make your own clothes than to buy it. So she went to sewing school (although she has a PhD in chemistry and she has been working in research agronomy all her life). She learnt how to make clothes, and then we had to help if we wanted that dress! We were four girls in the family and there were no boys.

I invented my own “embroidery technique”. My sewing work is not about embroideries. It is really about painting.

Your work consistent/y deals with the portrqyal of women as the are depicted in society and popular visual culture. You have dealt with issues of domesticity, romance and sexuality as themes that are central to how societies construct and idealise the role of women. When someone looks at these works, for example a work like The Rainbow Girl (2014), which is in ma1!J ways colourful and appealing, what do you want the viewer to see or think about?

Private Rooms . Embroidery on satin, hangers, metallic bar. . Dimensions variable . 1998

I do not work for the viewer. I make paintings for myself. I want to remind myself that it is okay to be a woman; that we are strong, beautiful, free, powerful and sexy. If the viewer understands or sees that, it is fine, but it is not intended for the viewer.

So would you say that your work is concerned with asserting your place in the world as a woman?

Yes, I would say that in a way, and above all it is a very personal quest.

You quote women as diverse as philosopher, Simone De Beauvoir and comedian, Roseanne Barr, in your text-based works, and you often overlay pictorial image with texts to produce some complex yet compelling images. How did texts become an aspect of your work? And what did it mean to also work with Arabic texts, given the long history of calligraphic art in the Islamic world?

I have always worked with texts. The first text pieces I did were in 1992. The first piece was La Dijinition de !’Amour d’Apres le Petit R.obert (The Definition of Love According to the Petit R.obert Dictionary). I basically copied the definition of the word ‘love’ from the Le Petit R.obert Dictionary, [written by] a man: I was upset that dictionaries and definitions were written by men. I made many pieces throughout the years either in sculpture or in painting with words, Beauty Tips for the Month of August (1993), Mqjnun (1995), Private R.ooms

(1999), Encyclopedia of Pleasure (2001 ), the definitions of the words, Desire, Pain, Absence, Longing, and Torment

(2005) to name but a few. With the new body of work, I started to mix images with text, as well as using Arabic writing. I had used French, and English before (as well as Korean, and Spanish). I used French when I was living in France, then switched to English when I came to the US but the use of Arabic is very new to me and I wanted to use it because I now know that there are a lot of women AND men like me in the Arab world, who want to break free from taboos, from tradition and from religion. This needs to be verbalised and said in the language of those who want to break free. Language is crucial because this is where ideas get forged, and in the Arab world, certain words have become taboo because the idea IS taboo.

You mention the Encyclopedia of Pleasure (2001). This was an important work in your oeuvre, and addressed a topic which would generally be considered taboo in Arab culture. Could you sqy more about this work, how you came to make this work, and why the work took form as an installation of cubes embroidered with golden texts?

I came to this work through my sister Sahar Amer, who is a scholar. She is Chair of the Department of Arabic Language and Culture at the University of Sydney in Australia. and was tracing it, and I was very much fascinated by this research; in particular, because it was so liberal and open-minded, which makes us think about what has happened in the Muslim world today; and how we have become full of ‘darkness’.

I chose the cubes because I wanted to refer to [the idea of] travelling, of moving: moving out or moving in. This book was saved by travelling into [a new] culture. This book is forbidden in the Muslim world but has been saved by the West. The same things happened in the middle ages where the West was in darkness and the Muslims saved their cultures. This migration is important.

Another series Shahrazad (2009) is a complex body of work exploring issues of love and sexuality, interestingly addressing both Arabic and Western perspectives within the frame of a single picture. W 01 did you want to make these works?

I love Shahrazad because she is a political woman. She uses her sexuality to put an end to that tyrant man, Shahrayar, and to save other women. Actually, she does not use her sexuality; she speaks, she talks, she is knowledgeable; she uses sexual stories, but she never uses her body! She is in total mastery of herself and of her desire.

You currently live and work in New York. What brought you to New York, and what kinds of exchanges were happening between Paris and New York at the time of your move? Were there American artists that had an impact on you?

I moved to New York because I wanted to be an international artist. If I wanted to succeed, I knew I had to move to New York. The Parisian/French scene was, at that time, much weaker and I had a lot of difficulties selling my work in France.

The artists that had an impact on me were Rosemarie Trockel, Barbara Kruger and Jenny Holzer. They have formed me through my study of their works but I have never met them.

Maf!Y women artists in the US abandoned painting to move into areas of conceptual practice – performance, video, installation, etc. – but painting has remained central to your work. W01
has painting remained important to you?

I did not know that women artists abandoned painting!! I really think it is not true. There are many, many women painters: Cecily Brown, Julie Mehretu, Jenny Saville, etc …

I continue to paint; painting is very central to my art.

Of course women have kept on painting, and there are ma’!)’, ma’!)’ interesting women painters working todqy. But since at least the 1960’s women painters, who felt alienated ry a male-dominated market. rystem, and the paternalistic tropes in art, turned to new forms of practice to communicate their resistance. The difficult place of painting in contemporary art continues to this dqy. It is still said that painting is a pariah’s pursuit. But you have remained committed to it; even as you explore other mediums. Interestingly, the artists you cite as influences – Rosemarie Trocke4 Barbara Kruger, Jen’!)’ Holzer – are known as conceptual artists. Could you comment on your relationship to painting and conceptual practice?

Da Vinci said it before: “la pintura es une cosa men tale”, I do not know the English translation, but the French translation is: “la peinture est une chose mentale”. I do not see the dichotomy between painting and conceptual art. Painting is by essence conceptual.

Could you talk a little bit about the process of making your embroidered paintings – they have become more and more elaborate over the years? The detail and labour in making these works seems significant.

It is not really about labour; I am just achieving what I had in my mind. Only, now I can paint with embroidery. For over 25 years I have been trying to develop the technique. So I started with the alphabet and now I can write.

What is your relationship to the rapid growing contemporary art scene in North Africa and the Middle East? Do you have plans to exhibit or work in the region? Do you see yourself as connected to the issues and practices that are developing there?

I do not really have a relationship with the art scene in North Africa and the Middle East. I exhibited for the first time in Cairo in 1997 at Karim Francis, then in 2000 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv and Anadil Gallery in Jerusalem. This November, I am preparing a solo show in Dubai for Leila Heller’s space in Dubai and I am going to be her opening show. I am excited about this; and now the art world in the Middle East is flourishing and is very dynamic.

Finally, could you say a little bit about your current projects? You are developing some new ceramic works; how did you find your way into working with that medium and what are the

concerns in this new body of work?

I am currently working on a new body of work using the medium of ceramic. I have always been interested in exploring different techniques. From 2010 until 2014, I did a whole series of metal works

(bronze and stainless steel). It was the first time that I had worked with this medium, making objects that are not embroidery-related.

I have always wanted to do ceramics, even before I started my metal work, but could not find a place where I could make it and someone who could help me do so. In 2013, I finally found a great place in New York called Greenwich House Pottery, where they offered private as well as group classes. I started by taking private classes for six months with the Director of the institution, Adam Welch. After that he offered me a residency [which] is ending in August 2015. It has been two years that I have been learning and making sculpture (and paintings) with ceramics. This is what I will be showing in Dubai along with three new paintings.

The subject matter of this new body of work is still women and is still painting. I cannot seem to get out of these two!


a)         Le Petit Robert is a popular French language dictionary, first published by Paul Robert in 1967. It is to the French language what the Oxford Dictionary is to the English language.

b)         In English, this quote translates as, “painting is a mental (that is, intellectual) thing”.

Haema Sivanesan is currently a Curator at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria {AGGV) (Canada) and a Consulting Curator with the Bengal Foundation (Dhaka, Bangladesh). She has a special interest in the historical and contemporary art of South and Southeast Asia, alongside a dedicated interest in working with diasporic artists. She is currently developing a range of projects for the AGGV that focus on the practices of Asian-Canadian artists, examining cross-cultural issues and relationships to art history.

Leading Image : Shahrazade. Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas. 66 x 79 inches. 2009

photos: courtesy of cheim & read, new yorkinterviewed by Haema Sivanesan Ghada Amer works across a range of media and techniques including prints and drawing, painting, bronze and stainless steel sculpture, installation, performance, garden design, and most recently, ceramics. Despite the breadth of her work, Amer describes herself as a painter, and is best recognised…

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