Ghada Amer: Unpicking prejudice at Goodman Gallery and beyond
Jan 12, 2024
Closing in December of last year, QR CODES REVISITED—LONDON at Goodman Gallery in London was an exhibition that displayed works by New York-based Egyptian artist Ghada Amer. Her textile “paintings” explore how people can come to communicate cross-culturally and nurture solidarity. This article looks at the recent exhibition as a significant step forward in Amer’s longstanding Definition series, which has always upheld the words of leading female thinkers.
The works at QR CODES REVISITED—LONDON ranged from bold, heavy grids, which gave the exhibition its name, to exquisite forests of delicate threads that dart across the canvas. Each piece takes on new meaning once its Arabic or English scripture, hidden in unusual fonts and shapes, is decoded. The voices of French, Arab and South African feminist revolutionaries shout out from the works: In ONE IS NOT BORN (2023), French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir’s proclamation “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman” spirals around itself in thick black text, and in MY BODY IS MINE (2023), undulating Arabic calligraphy calls out “my body belongs to me and it does not represent the honour of anyone,” initially spoken by Tunisian activist Amina Sboui.
Amer has not had a straightforward trajectory as an artist, and for this reason, her protest pieces are all the more powerful. Like many successful women, she has had to fight for her place. The artist first moved from Cairo to the French coastal city of Nice at the age of 11, and while Amer later attained a place at prestigious art school La Villa Arson, she was not able to attend painting classes. Painting, it had been decided, was only for male students. It was then that Amer resolved that she would be a painter, and she would do what she had to in order to learn – namely, borrow the notes of male students, and tell them to ask questions on her behalf. After graduating, Amer spent five years applying for scholarships, internships and grant programmes in France, to no avail. Yet in 1995, an unexpected opportunity to be artist-in-residence at the University of North Carolina came up. Amer took it, and from there, she moved to New York. In 1996, penniless and hoping to stay in the USA, Amer struck a deal with an American lawyer using the valuable currency she had: she would exchange a painting for a green card. Amer’s move to New York launched her career and the value of the legendary “green card painting” has since appreciated from a four-figure sum to six. Like Amer’s own life story, her paintings push against marginalization and inspire women to take whichever routes and roles they desire.
It is due to Amer’s determination to become a painter that her Definition works must be described as paintings, regardless of their materiality. Embroidery, stitching, and many forms of “domestic craft” continue to be viewed as the territory of women, while the history of painting is predominantly – and disproportionately – male. At the exhibition, textile works became framed, elevated paintings. Absence, Longing, Desire, Torment and Pain (2006) are solid black works with a depth of color that matches that of a Mark Rothko, while MY BODY IS MINE holds the formality of a Piet Mondrian. This ease of comparison to the work of great male artists also underlines the very problem with art history.
While Amer has always employed textiles with a particular intention, the Definition series has marked a shift away from the artworks that shot her to fame in the early 2000s. Those were much more explicit works, in which Amer used reams of multicolored thread to embroider over erotic images of women, taken from newspapers and men’s magazines. The artist’s hand would transform these images of degrading objectification into a tender embrace of the female body, winding strands of cotton around them in an act of care. Describing this series, Amer has stressed that the naked female body is not the source of gender inequality - and that any control placed on women’s bodies is only an extension of the patriarchy. Though now a common perspective, this was the antithesis to the Second Wave Feminism movement at the time, which asserted that women must de-sexualise their bodies in order to achieve equality. Somewhat ahead of the curve, Amer’s works exclaimed that the female body is a source of power in itself and that women should be free to use their bodies as they wish.
This thought is extraordinarily captured in the outlier work that was displayed at the exhibition: the embroidered wall sculpture, Barbie Loves Ken, Ken Loves Barbie (1995/2002). Two life-sized white straitjackets, striped with the stitched red letters “Ken aime Barbie, Barbie aime Ken,” dangle from white plastic coat hangers. In contrast to the emboldening messages of freedom writ large across the gallery walls, this sculpture presents an image of imprisonment within the ideals of marriage and beauty, propagated by figures like Barbie and Ken, and by consumerism at large. It is an incredibly affecting work, which elevated the exhibition by providing a clear illustration of the expectations and constrictions condemned by the writers and activists whose words were featured on the walls of the gallery.
While QR CODES REVISITED—LONDON presented a continuation of Amer’s longstanding practice, there was one clear departure: based in the USA for 30 years, Amer has often made text works in English, yet the works at the exhibition were almost entirely scribed in Arabic. Amer has explained that since the 2010 Arab Spring uprising, she has focused increasingly on addressing the Arab feminist movement, stating during a recent interview at Goodman Gallery that “they are with me now, so I don’t feel alone.” At the exhibition, four pale ochre paintings respectively defined the words “freedom,” “peace,” “security,” and “love” in Arabic, their long, intricate explanations stretching across the canvas. Though viewers may not have been able to translate the definitions, and translations were not provided, the embroidery offers a silent meditation on these words, and most importantly, on their meaning to the viewers when read in the context of Arab societies. It is a quiet gesture, yet surprisingly moving as it ripples out into a reflection upon the prejudices that continue to dictate how different people, genders, and cultures view and relate to one another. Amer’s intention is to transcend these divisions, stating “the fight is not over.”
Ghada Amer's QR CODES REVISITED—LONDON was on view from Nov 15 - Dec 22, 2023. More information about the exhibition can be found here.
Edited by Kaajal Parmanand