Interview by Mohammad Dagman
Ghada Amer is a contemporary artist whose medium of choice is embroidery on canvas. To describe a typical artwork, we spy a pattern of figures—mostly women in erotic moments—unfolding betwixt and between abstract webs of colorful thread.
She was born in Cairo in 1963, and studied art in Nice, Boston, and Paris before settling here in New York City. We spent an afternoon with her over tea and Egyptian biscuits at her Harlem studio talking about her journey with art.
Mohammad Dagman: It’s funny that all the Arabic newspapers are obsessed with new artists—especially someone of your stature. And I don’t think any other Arabic female artists have had a Brooklyn Museum retrospective. Yet Arabic newspapers do not follow you at all.
Ghada Amer: Maybe Mona Hatoum had a retro. She’s a very important artist.
MD: Why do you think the Arabic media has not picked up on you yet?
GA: Because I speak about sexuality, and you cannot speak about sexuality in the Arabic language. We do not speak about it. Period. Other than romance, we do not talk about love. It does not have another connotation.
You know I did have a show in Egypt, even before I had one in Israel, in 1998. They like to say I had a show in Israel first. Not true. In Egypt, I had a show in a private gallery. Not in a museum—like the one I had in Israel. Someone wanted me to do a show in 1994, which I thought was totally crazy because it was the height of bombing and fighting there. A lot of fighting was going on then. I was younger and scared. I showed a lot of sexual images. The works from the 1998 show went into galleries there. We even made a special price for Egyptians, but they didn’t buy. Only foreigners bought my works from those shows. I didn’t get any Arabic press at all, only lots of positive press from English newspapers published there.
Do you know Nuss al-Dunya? It is a publication like Elle. It translates as “The half of the world.” It’s supposed to be more feminist—involved with women’s issues—and a writer came to talk with me about the show and said then that she could not speak about sexuality and could not write about feminism.
MD: My question is, why do you put Koranic references in your artwork, while your artwork features erotic figures of women?
GA: I did one piece with a Koranic reference. It’s called “Private Rooms.” It was in French, and never used Arabic language, and that was deliberate. But some people tend to mix it up. They write that I use Koranic references within the erotic. I have never done this. I read from one piece called Encyclopedia of Pleasure (Dunnya al-Ludhdha). This book is from the 14th century, I think. It starts like this: [Translated from Arabic] “This book teaches you how to be a good Muslim, and in order to be a good Muslim, you have to be a good human being, and in order to be a good human being, you have to be a good sexual being.” It is not something horrible or pornographic. It explains sexuality; who is attracted to whom. It’s a very funny piece with lots of poetry. In it, sexuality is not at all something horrible or bad. Of course, this book is forbidden now.
MD: There are many books like this. I read about the Khallifa himself as a sexual superhero, jumping over walls, sleeping with many women….
GA: Yes, yes, the Khallifa himself asked knowledgeable people to express that sexuality was an important matter to discuss and write about.
Maureen Mahony: Do you think it would be helpful for younger Arab girls searching out their own sexuality to look at your work and learn from the freedom that you’ve been able to find?
GA: My work is not only [about sexuality] for the Arab world, because even here and in America—you would be surprised—there are a lot of people with sexual problems.
MM: Probably more so.
GA: No, it is the same. Even here in America, my work has been in exhibitions where they have put warnings. I can show you. The entrance to one of my exhibitions, there is a warning: “Contains questionable content. Enter at your own risk” kind of thing. In Singapore one of the shows I did with Reza was R-rated. And here in the Whitney Museum, there was a piece they couldn’t show. And this is very funny. I am sure they couldn’t show it [in Egypt] because it is speaking of pleasure. Because even though nobody can write about sexuality, all the old writing about sexuality is still readable. It is not as taboo as the image. The image is really where there is a problem. So when speaking of pleasure where there is all these excerpts on sexual content in writing—where people can read it—they wanted to put it in the space on 42nd street. The committee there disallowed it because it was on public display. They couldn’t put the warning on it because the gallery is an open glass to the public. So, there you go.
Talking about censorship…also, this happens with the press. When they wanted to reproduce an image in an article, I would have to show the artwork where the sexual content was hidden—“Give us an image where the images are obscured by thread,” or if it is upside-down. Yes, in the American press they do that. America and the Middle East are very similar in terms of sexuality. Here, a little bit more free. But at the end, there are problems in both. You can see, eh?
I don’t want to be seen as though I am giving lessons to the Middle East. I am not giving lessons to anyone. It is my experience. I am telling my story. I am really basically like a writer who is writing a diary. I cannot write, so I am painting it. People can “read” it and they have to take it, or if it is something they don’t really understand, they don’t get touched. Others, if it touches them, they get invigorated.