For over twenty years, Ghada Amer has challenged the oppression of female agency through sexually explicit paintings. With a global perspective, whether resisting oppression in the East’s Muslim-majority countries where she was born, or in the West’s Christian-majority countries where she has since made her home, Amer’s oeuvre has continually expanded into bodies of work committed to freeing women, an idea that often takes the form of parted legs, open lips, loose threads, and dripping strands of unveiled hair. While most known for her embroidered canvases, Amer has also applied her vision and technique to sculptures in an array of materials including carnivorous plants, and now earth itself: clay. Recently, Amer began working in ceramics, creating plates and a series of box sculptures now on view with new paintings at Cheim & Read Gallery through May 12, 2018.
Portrait of the Revolutionary Woman (2017), a black-and-white ceramic plate, greets visitors in the gallery's entryway. The plate shows a painting in black of a woman’s face framed by a wisps and bangs, her lips formed into an Oh-shape that, based on her over-the-shoulder expression, doesn't appear to be a question. The ceramic plate, at 36 x 24 x 8 inches, resembles the rough but fragile underside of a pale petal.
“I wanted to do ceramics mainly because I wanted to do colored sculpture,” Amer says. “Putting color into the object is very important. In my Egyptian culture, or since ancient Greece, sculpture was not white. It’s only lost its paint.”
In a small front gallery, Ma Venus de Milo (2017) looks down, her face painted in red slip clay. The artwork’s name evokes Aphrodite, the ancient Greek goddess of love, beauty, pleasure, and procreation. She bears an expression of amused interest.
During a residency fellowship program at Greenwich House Pottery, Amer created the plates with a flat-slab modeling process, involving earthenware clay overlaid with a layer of brushed porcelain clay, which she then painted with a colored slip, a clay-pigment blend, before firing in the kiln. Hung, her ceramic plates curl from the wall, her Venus de Milo casting shadows that resembled moth wings and tinted the stark white wall a rosy hue.
“And I grew up in France,” Amer says with a laugh. “I have always loved those mural-like plates by Picasso and Matisse.”
This is the trifecta of experiencing Amer’s work: a tertiary mix of art practice, cultural critique, and delight.
Born in Cairo, Egypt in 1963, Amer moved to France with her family in the mid-1970s, where she later studied at Villa Arson Nice. During her MFA program, she encountered a painting instructor who only admitted male students into his class.
“It was revolting,” Amer says. “Actually, I was shocked. I thought only my culture was horrible against women. When this person denied me, it was a very big moment for me, a very painful realization. I thought I was going to the West to escape and to have freedom. I thought painting was for everybody. And then I realized, in that class and in all the history books, there are no women. From there, I began my work.”
In response to the instructor’s sexist exclusion, she applied the embroidery she learned from her mother and grandmother to canvas. This act of resistance, a homage to “women’s work,” became an ongoing theme for Amer. After she graduated with an MFA in painting in 1989, she continued “painting with thread,” as she described her process of intricately sewing figures of women, usually in erotically charged positions, and sometimes the text of feminist statements.
Women in White (2016) at 70 x 59 inches commands the far wall of the gallery. The figures of three women, all assuming poses appropriated from pornography, were embroidered over the repeating statement in capital, block letters: I NEVER THOUGHT IT WAS FAIR THAT ANATOMY DECIDED WHAT MY BRAIN WAS FIT FOR, a quote from the book Defiance by C.J. Redwine.
Nearby, White Girls (2017), a textured, all-white abstract painting of acrylic, embroidery, and gel medium on canvas, takes umbrage with whiteness as an art canon convention. Amid the painting’s flurry, repeating figures of a female’s head and shoulder, without a body, appear within the swirling whiteout.
“Many people ask me, why are your women white?” Amer remarks. “They assume because I am from the East, I should be painting only Eastern women or what?”
“I paint white women,” Amer continues, “because she can be seen as representative of women in general. This is our canon. The canon of beauty that has been imposed.”
Our cultural default.
“If I painted an African woman or Asian woman, white women would say, ‘Oh, they have the problem. We are free.’ The West thinks they are free, because they don’t wear the veil."
“Women are oppressed—white, black, whatever,” Amer says, “we are all oppressed.” And through her painting, Amer strives to empower all women to love their bodies, to be proud of their desire and consent and pleasure, and to resist being compliant, passive objects. As such, White Girls could also be viewed as a challenge to see the limits of supporting patriarchal hierarchies, as the majority (53%) of white women did in the 2016 US presidential election, lest one remain, like the woman in the painting, disembodied.
In the mid-1990s, Amer moved to Harlem, New York, where she has lived and worked since. In her studio, she embroiders on a loom, committed to creating difficult imagery to challenge assumptions about East and West, women, agency, objectification, race, abstract and figurative art, desire, wit and rage.
In Cheim & Read, her paintings cover each wall in the main gallery, while the floor holds a handful of podiums showcasing ceramic sculptures Amer calls her "boxes."
“They remind me of boxes that are open or have been torn,” Amer says of the ceramic flat-slabs, ranging from around 20 to 24 inches by 30 to 34 inches, that have been slit and folded or zig-zagged to be free-standing.
“Paintings are flat,” Amer says, “but on ceramic boxes you can see them in space. This for me is the pleasure. Making the painting into a sculpture.”
Women gaze from every corner, emerging from brushstrokes and droplets into bright strands of loose hair, bare breasts, arched backs in Sculpture in Black, Red and White (2017) and from a nearly opaque darkness in The Black Sculpture (2017), in which cracks of golden glaze breakthrough. Amer explains that her growing interest in ceramics was in part due to it being considered a “low” art.
In the small back gallery, the painting Landscape with Black Mountains-RFGA (2017) hangs: Four lines of a repeating outline of a woman on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, looking back expectantly, over her shoulder, legs open, knees bent, toes touching. The repetition creates a landscape of hillocks, leading to mountain caves, and “pokes fun at the conventions of pastoral nature scenes,” Jenni Sorkin, art historian, wrote in the essay "Ghada Amer’s Material Plunder" in the exhibition’s catalog, “passing off the most unnatural of pornographic poses as a voluptuous topography…The allure of this compromising position, of course, is its very earthiness.”
Lovers in Blue (2017) is a ceramic plate of two women kissing: painted brown slip clay outlines their profiles, kohl-black eyes closed, rouged lips locked, and strands of blue, black, brunette, red, and blonde hair cascading. The plate’s curved edges enclose them, rising to reveal a back painted robin-egg blue. “The most beautiful thing for me,” Amer says of creating ceramics, “was we were free from the thread; I was just painting without any other thoughts.”
Ghada Amer’s exhibition of paintings and ceramic sculptures is now showing at Cheim & Read Gallery through May 12, 2018. The complete exhibition catalog is viewable online.
Images courtesy Cheim & Read, New York.
Top image: Ghada Amer GIRL WITH GARDEN CARNATION 2017 Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas 72 x 64 inches 182.9 x 162.6 centimeters
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Amy Deneson is a writer in New York. Her essays have also appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, The Toast, Salon, The Observer, and Curve magazine, among others. She has recently completed a memoir about growing out of the purity culture. Follow her on amydeneson.com.