Ghada Amer was born in Cairo, Egypt, in 1963, studied painting and fine arts in Nice, Boston, and Paris, and has been exhibiting her works since the early 1990s. From the very beginning of her career, Amer has been engaged in an investigation of the stereotypical notions, images, and techniques of femininity, as they are played out both in the visual arts and in everyday life. She lives and works in New York.
One of Amer’s earliest works, the series “Five Women at Work” (1991), features stenciled images of women carrying out domestic activities, such as grocery shopping, cooking, vacuuming, or caring for children. Mirroring the traditional descriptions of these activities as specifically female tasks, Amer’s images are reminiscent of illustrations found in old-fashioned textbooks, or encyclopedias, and stress the generic, typological aspects of both the tasks and the women that perform them. Amer strategically incorporates the conventionality of her sources by embroidering the outlines of images directly onto canvas, leaving the images hollow and stencil-like.
Embroidery, stitching, and sewing, traditionally identified as “female” techniques, have since become trademarks of Amer’s work, and have been used repeatedly by feminist artists since the 1960s as an ironic or subversive commentary on the male dominated techniques of painting and sculpture, especially as the heroic traditions of Abstract Expressionism and Monumental Sculpture.
In 1993, Amer began to incorporate text into her canvases, selecting definitions and descriptions of certain themes and topics rather than their textbook illustrations. Her work “The Definition of Love according to the Petit Robert” (1993) shows exactly what the title proposes, an excerpt from the prominent French dictionary explaining the linguistic meaning of the word “love.” Amer embroidered the text directly onto canvas, using a commercial machine and stenciled font. By altering the color of the thread every so often, Amer gave the work an irregular appearance and stressed the lush textural qualities of the raised surface of the canvas. Loose threads hang from the individual words and are woven or stuck together, rendering parts of the text illegible and lending the work an almost abstract quality.
Amer’s engagement with definitions and descriptions of femininity, as well as the continuous loosening of her embroideries towards more soft, tactile, and abstract surfaces, shifted increasingly toward other fields of reference. In “Counseils de Beauté” (Beauty Tips, 1993), Amer ironically embroidered several texts that give standard advice on the difficult task of keeping up personal hygiene. Other descriptions of beauty, femininity, and corporeality also find entrance into Amer’s work when she reproduces erotic stories and descriptions from both the Western canon of literature and Arabic cultural heritage. For example, the work “Private Rooms” (1997) features quotations from erotic narratives in the Ku’ran embroidered onto large canvas screens, and the work “Encyclopedy of Pleasures” (2001) features a series of cloth covered boxes embroidered with descriptions of all varieties of human eroticism found in Muslim medieval manuscripts.
Since the mid 1990s, Amer has also incorporated more direct images of sexuality into her richly textured canvases. Amer often uses images of women in explicit sexual poses, copied from softcore pornographic magazines, reproducing a selected image repetitiously across the canvas. Here she recalls another technique from the history of embroidery, namely patterning, the repetition of a selected image also results in the blurring of the image, as if to render it mute or abstract. At the same time, Amer has begun to color her canvases, pouring and blotching paint over parts of the painting before embroidering into it. By taking on methods of painting that were first introduced and canonized by Abstract Expressionism and combining them with the repetitious embroidery of pornographic images, Amer has arrived at a more openly pronounced criticism of (stereotypically) male artistic behavior. With Abstract Expressionism as the common point of reference for heroic artistic gestures and the sexist visualness of pornographic magazines as the definitive example of the male gaze, Amer has isolated two dominant strands in popular visual culture. By combining these with the subtle textuality of her intertwined threads, colored blotches and soft objects, Amer manages to continue her quiet critique of the stereotypes of domesticity, femininity, and sexuality, while simultaneously embracing the contested imagery. The slightly disconcerting feeling of unrest that often comes with her work thus can be seen as proof of the constant rejection of simple visual or thematic solutions to the questions Amer’s work has been asking for over a decade.
Author: Christian Rattemeyer
Ghada Amer was born in Cairo in 1963.
She studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Nice; School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques, Paris.
Amer was a 1999 artist in residence at the School of The Art Institute of Chicago; Villa Arson, Nice, and a recipient of the UNESCO fellowship, Venice Biennale.
Amer lives and works in New York.
Solo shows and group exhibitions
Exhibition / Installation,
“Intimate Confessions,” Deitch Projects, New York, and Tel Aviv Museum of Art, 2000;
Whitney Biennale, New York, 2000;
“Greater New York,” P.S.1, New York, 2000;
Kwangju Biennale, South Korea, 2000;
“Ghada Amer,” Institute of Visual Arts, Milwaukee, 2000;
“Looking for a Place,” SITE, Sante Fe, 1999;
Venice Biennale, 1999;
“Echolot,” Museum Fridericianum, Kassel, 1998;
“Ghada Amer,” Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporaneo, Sevilla, 1999;
Espace Karim Francis, Cairo, 1998, 1997;
Johannesburg Biennale, 1997;
Galerie Météo, Paris, 1997, 1993;
“Vraiment: Féminisme et Art,” Magasin Site Bouchayer-Viallet, France, 1997;
“The Sense of Order,” Moderna Galerija Ljubljana, 1996;
Hanes Art Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, 1996;
“Pittura/Immedia,” Neue Galerie Graz, 1995;
“Orient’ation,” Istanbul Biennale, 1995;
Villa Arson, Nice, 1990
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Independence and Liberation Movements in Africa
(18 May 01 - 29 July 01)