When conservatism reaches such heights that it begins to suppress creative expression, controversial art becomes a necessity. Growing up in Cairo, where art is currently dismissed as a luxury and people are stripped of the tools to adequately tackle cultural taboos, I have yearned my entire young adult life for the kinds of artists who boldly and gracefully challenge the status quo and provide the groundwork for combatting social oppression. Last Monday, Nov. 24, the Romance Languages and Literatures Department answered my prayers and brought renowned artist Ghada Amer to the University for an Artist Talk.
Born in the ’60s in Egypt, Amer got to experience a more liberal environment predating the rise of fundamentalism in the ’80s. Thus, when she moved to France in the ’70s, she had not been exposed to the kinds of religious traditions that would render her inferior as a woman.
Amer is incredibly cosmopolitan. Her work has taken her around the world, from her native Egypt to Korea, Israel, Germany, France, and the United States, where she currently resides in New York City. The vast majority of her work deals with issues of sexuality and gender. She is particularly keen on exploring how art history, popular culture, and pornography commonly represent women as ideal objects to be desired and/or obtained rather than as fully-fledged human beings.
Her primary form of expression is painting, which she is known for infusing with embroidery. Amer has also created numerous sculptural works and occasionally takes photographs. While she enjoys dabbling in different media and diversifying her artistic endeavors, those hand-embroidered paintings are the primary source of her popularity both critically and commercially.
“I paint, then I get sick of painting,” she said. “So I do sculpture. [It] depends on what I feel like.”
Despite the large turnout in the Romance Languages and Literatures Lounge on Monday, the entire session felt intimate. Addressing the audience casually and humorously, Amer introduced herself and her background briefly before delving right into presenting her work. Seeming immediately comfortable with the space, she even self-deprecatingly joked about her own website when technical difficulties prevented her from using a hard drive.
“[It] is not great, but it’s how I want to present myself,” she said.
Amer said she was inspired to address female sexuality when, upon visiting Egypt after art school in the early ’80s, she noticed a stark rise in conservative apparel, specifically the Muslim headscarf or hijab. What she found most disturbing, she said, was not so much the spread of this new cultural dynamic as the fact no one was fostering dialogue about it and its implications for the future.
She took it upon herself to begin exploring the topic in her art.
“It was a big identity of crisis,” Amer said. “I was extremely scared because nobody talked about veils and conservatism [and] I felt I was the only one.”
While she felt it was important for her to tackle the topic of conservative apparel for the sake of her culture, Amer was hesitant to create the kind of work that would lead her to be solely, or even primarily, identified with the issue. Muslim women, she said, are commonly categorized as an exotic and oppressed trope, something made even more apparent by the Islamophobia and patriarchal condescension she encountered in France and the United States.
“I didn’t want to be tackled as the Muslim woman in my art,” Amer said. “I was sure I wouldn’t paint women from the ‘other’ culture.”
From her art history classes, Amer not only realized the severe shortage of women artists, but also that women were rarely represented in non-objectified manners. She responded to this problem by approaching it from the male perspective in order to dismantle the system with its own methods. This is why much of her work portrays women in pornographic contexts.
“I chose to represent women from the realm of men, [and] that’s why my muse is pornography,” Amer said. “I wanted to use images that are forbidden for women. I wanted to explore why they are forbidden through making art about them.”
Amer’s pieces are simultaneously abstract and representational. From afar, her paintings appear to be full of chaotically colorful shapes; upon closer observation, it becomes apparent they are actually very elaborate drawings of women.
Her most recent series incorporates quotations into paintings, sculptures, and even public installations, taking from culturally prominent proverbs and sayings. A notable example was a wall she embroidered in a dining hall at Wellesley College containing every single definition of the word “terrorist,” intending to spark conversation around how American society viewed terrorism and the “other” in light of the war in Iraq. She said she mainly wanted to play with how politics, culture, and language make labeling someone a “terrorist” an extremely complicated issue, given how differently the word is conceived by different people, even in English.
A much needed breath of fresh air, Ghada Amer proves that fundamentalism and sexism can be challenged, even in the conservative Middle East, using the very tools that keep them going.