Ghada Amer

What's on: Ghada Amer

Gagosian Gallery

Ghada Amer’s recent works at Gagosian (2 May-8 June) at last give London audiences the chance to see the work of this Egyptian-born artist who became the subject of unusually intense interest in the months after 11 September. Amer has lived in New York for almost five years (she was in Paris before that). Profiles and interviews with her have appeared recently in the New York Times and The Art Newspaper, reflecting a sense that her concerns (Islam, women, forbidden sensuality) are especially timely, given the current frisson of interest in images of burka-clad women deprived of basic freedoms under the Taliban. Last year, Amer showed an installation of boxes inscribed with passages from a forbidden 11th-century book called Encyclopedia of Pleasure written by a Muslim man, Ali ibn Nasr al-Katib. Impressed by the book’s combination of eroticism and religiosity (“he wanted to be a better Muslim by being a better sexual being”), Amer says she copied the passages as a way to preserve them. The large canvases on show at Gagosian allude to the look of Abstract Expressionism, but turn out to be made mainly from embroidery. Up close, they show figures in poses taken from pornographic magazines. Thus, images which, in a Western woman’s hands, would probably be interpreted as expressions of alienation and submission are, in the hands of an Egyptian-born woman employing a traditionally feminine medium, “reclaimed.” The contemporary art world loves these neat inversions: similar works showing at last year’s Venice Biennale earned Amer an award from Unesco and allegedly inspired a recent collection for Chloé by the fashion designer Stella McCartney. Amer has said that attempts by radical feminists to “police desire” remind her, in their restrictiveness, of prohibitions imposed by the Egyptian authorities during her youth. “I don’t see it in a harsh light, in terms of exploitation or critique,” she has said. “Rather I see it as something beautiful and warm, a source of pleasure. Feminism can be empowered by seduction.” The works themselves have a striking effect, due in part to the tension between their large size and the intimate pull of their erotic subject matter.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 125 May 2002