Ghada Amer’s art is a triumph of conﬂict and contradiction. Nana Asfour meets a woman who refuses to conform.
As she prepares for a month-long trip to her native Cairo, one of the things the New York-based artist Ghada Amer is most looking forward to is the opportunity to speak and hear Arabic on a regular basis. "I love Arabic," she says as she pours a cup of tea from an ornate teapot at her home in Harlem, "It's a very sexy language." The provocativeness of the statement is to be expected from Amer, who seems to revel in outrageousness: human-sized straitjackets for the toy couple Ken and Barbie; embroidered paintings of women in erotic poses; a performance piece inviting visitors to bite into a cake in the image of George Bush and Tony Blair. But her proclamation is also an apt summation of her work. For Amer, who is currently having her first US retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, language and sex have been sources of endless fascination and exploration.
Dressed in dark brown low-slung trousers and a black t-shirt, Amer leans back in her impractically designed dining room chair ("be careful not to fall over," she advises as she pats the guitar-pick-shaped seat), laughing heartily while she recalls her difficult adolescence in France. Her family - mother, father and three sisters - moved to the city in the late Seventies, where her parents were pursuing their PhDs. Amer, who was 11 at the time, struggled for many years to balance out the restrictions imposed upon her by her Muslim family and her own religiosity with the unhindered freedoms afforded to her libertine French classmates. "I tried to please my parents in my adolescence until I got very sick, physically depressed," she says. "I couldn't speak to anyone about my problems because I was in France and in France everyone was liberated - at least I thought so. My girlfriends dated, they went out…" Her parents, worried about their young girls, kept them close - at home. Eager to break free from their protectiveness, Amer eventually decided to speak out. Rather than using words, she chose to express herself through art. "I would have died if I didn't make art. It's kind of a salvation for me."
Although her Islamic culture would later infuse her work, when she enrolled at the Ecole Pilote Internationale d'Art et de Recherche, in Nice, she was determined to avoid making any references to her background in her art. Like many children of first-generation immigrants, she went through a phase of rejecting her heritage and wanting to disavow it. She wanted to fit in, to create an identity for herself outside of that of her parents. In the West, Amer's work has been perceived as a sort of repudiation of her Muslim and Middle Eastern background but in reality, it is just as much an act of spite: against a painting teacher in France who refused to acknowledge her artistic abilities because she was a woman - "I still resent him," she says - and the system that he typified. She was surprised at the lack of mention of female artists in her classes - "we couldn't even read about them," she says - and at French culture's mistrust of anything that could be regarded as feminist. "Here they teach you feminist theory, feminist art, everything feminist," she says in her French-accented English. "In France, you don't even hear about this word. Feminist means witch." She had resorted to art as a way to escape the constraints of her culture but now she was learning that the western art field itself could be antagonistic to women. "I was upset," she says. But she didn't - wouldn't - concede.
Years later, she rebelled: she decided she would take the works of the big boys of painting - the Abstract Expressionists - and infuse them with feminine imagery (women in autoerotic poses) and feminine process (embroidery), thereby staking her claim in the male-dominated field. "For me, to defend the choice of being a painter and to use the codes of abstract painting, as they've been defined historically, is not only an artistic challenge: its main meaning is occupying a territory that has been denied to women historically," she has said. "It's my vengeance," she told me.
What had first provoked her into employing embroidery in her art was an Egyptian fashion magazine featuring veiled women in western suits. In her trips to Egypt to visit her parents, who had returned home after completing their graduate studies, Amer had been noticing an increase in the number of women willingly taking on the veil. This included her own mother, aunts and cousins. By 1988, when she came across the magazine, some 80 per cent of the Egyptian women she knew had adopted the veil. As a woman who had lived in France for much of her adolescence and some of her adulthood, she was unable to comprehend this trend, and found herself haunted for several years by the images of the magazine. She began playing with the idea of patterns and then launched into a series of embroidered portraits of women performing traditional household chores - ironing, cleaning, cooking.
Even though she insists that from the beginning, her work has been a political act, politics, especially in regards to the Middle East, only really began to feature prominently in 1991, after a spate of terrorist bombings in Paris, where she was living. In 1995 she fled to New York to avoid anti-Arab prejudice, but soon America would change and she found herself confronted with the same stereotypes that she had hoped to escape. The political works were a natural response: "I have to react to the world, to the subject that touches me," she says.
Many of these reactions are included in the insightful and incisive retrospective, including photographic documentation of her Reign of Terror installation, consisting of paper plates, cups and placemats inscribed with definitions of the words terror and terrorism, as found in the dictionaries of various languages, and a framed burka that she made in anticipation of the day when she might be forced to abide by strict Islamic dress codes. On the black satin piece, which is meant to be worn to hide the face, she had the word fear in Arabic sewed in with handmade lace and jade beads. "This piece is for myself," she says. "My own burka that I will wear if I have to."
Across the room is another Arabic-text piece, this one a four-panel series of paintings on which the Arabic words love, security, freedom and peace are stitched on the canvas, each with a different coloured thread. The calligraphy, which is whitewashed with pastel paint, is barely discernible but the content hardly seems to matter. The impetus for this work after all was, Amer says, as much a need to remind viewers as herself that such vocabulary still exists in her mother tongue.
In a sense, Amer is one of few Middle Eastern artists confronting stereotypes of that region in her work. But at the same time she has a difficult relationship with her culture. She doesn't want to show in the Middle East. (In 2000, believing that peace was imminent, she exhibited in Israel; the backlash from the Arab press soured her against showing again in the region.) But her experiences in America have not always been positive either. Reviewing Amer's third solo New York show featuring her infamous erotic "drip" paintings, the New York Times critic Roberta Smith proclaimed them "dry" and "didactic". She claims that Americans are too puritanical for her work, and are always eager to represent her through the microcosm of her culture.
She's shown around the world and so far she's encountered censorship twice: once in Panama, when some of her banners that were installed around the city as an art project were confiscated, and the other in New York itself, when the Whitney Museum deemed the text in her Encyclopedia of Sex installation, featuring an English translation of a medieval Islamic scholar's writings on sex, too risqué. "In America, they have less problems with the image than the text. In the Arab world, it's the contrary." In a sense, she's not entirely understood by either. And doesn't entirely fit in either. Which isn't always easy for her - or her audience - but then it's this tension that illuminates her best work.
"The first thing I do in Egypt is read the newspaper. It's very difficult. I get a headache. But it's very important to reconnect with the language. It keeps me connected to culture." It was Cairo that spawned her art career and even though she has to transform herself when she visits (straighten her wild mane of curly hair, dress more demurely, and behave), the city continues to be a source of boundless inspiration. "I go there to get angry and make art," she says.
Nana Asfour works at The New Yorker and writes frequently about Middle-Eastern art.