The Brooklyn Rail | Ghada Amer with Amanda Gluibizzi

October 6, 2021

The title of Ghada Amer’s new exhibition at Marianne Boesky Gallery, The Women I Know Part II, is deceptively straightforward. The subtitle alludes to the first iteration of the show, displaying different paintings including Amer’s first painted self-portrait, which opened in November 2020 at Berlin’s Kewenig Gallery. This second manifestation includes portraits of women who are, indeed, her acquaintances, as well as sculptural headshots of Amer’s archetypal or erotic women, those images pulled from pornographic magazines for which she is so well known. Amer’s signature medium—embroidery that both elucidates and obscures—is prevalent throughout the painted works, while the sculptures look like massive embroidery samplers resting in the air.


So, who are the women Amer knows? They are the women in the portraits, who sit for her camera phone and who are paired with phrases that the artist feels match them. Amer creates line drawings of their faces, hair, and accessories from the photographs she takes of them and then layers those contours with the outlines of letters that spell out sentences—among them, the statement “We revolt simply because for many reasons we can no longer breathe,” written on Portrait of Hannah (2021), hits at many important levels right now—the lines of letters and of women intersecting and disrupting each other on the same surface simultaneously. The spaces made between the two are painted, creating more visual tension, and the outlines of the letters are embroidered, the ends of the threads used to do so overflowing from top to bottom, developing veils of interference between the viewer and the painting. These are pictures of the women as Amer sees them, which reminds us that portraits are always images of the ways that we appear to others, not how we envision ourselves. 


And what about the erotic women? As the artist reveals in this interview, they are also the women she knows. Using the same photographs of the same women for years, Amer does in a sense know them as well as anyone might. Such characters without characters are, for Amer, complex and three-dimensional personalities. Appropriately, then, the erotic women are represented in The Women I Know Part II as free-standing and relief sculptures. Barbara in Black (2021), for example, appears from a distance as flat as a line drawing. It is only when we draw closer that we see that the image has been pieced together from different lengths of bronze, pressed into place by the artist’s hands. Conversely, the “back” of the sculpture, the same image reversed, is utterly smooth. These are paradoxical works, both thickly thin and two-dimensional sculptures in the round. 


Both groups of women make eye contact with us, the erotic women out of the corners of their eyes and the women she knows seemingly more forthrightly. They challenge us to see them: the sculptures pressure us to shift between looking at them and through them, acknowledging our complicity in their objecthood. The painted and embroidered portraits are dizzying and harder to look at, more difficult to make out, and sometimes literally impossible to get a read on. These works challenge Ghada Amer, too, pushing her to use her hands, to develop her ideas, to get to know what she already knows.


Ghada Amer: I work every day and I experiment a lot. It takes a very long time to develop my ideas. It’s technicalities—these reliefs or drawings in the space are coming from my earlier sculptures, like the “Blue Bra Girls,” the egg-shaped sculptures. When I started doing sculpture without using any threads, I didn’t know how to do it myself; I was a painter, but now I am doing sculpture as well. At first, I couldn’t do it with my hands. I just drew it, and I had somebody else make them for me. And I was really frustrated. In 2010, I said, “Where can I learn these tools?” So I went to Greenwich House Pottery to learn, and then I discovered ceramics. But I really learned how to model, which was great. 


The portraits of the women I know first started in 2013 with some sketches on paper. Then, I did two portraits on canvas: The Virgin without the Child and Ma Jolie (both 2016), but not of the women I know; those women were from pornographic magazines. It’s not a diptych, but in my head it kind of works like a diptych. I found quotations from Saddam Hussein and Angelina Jolie, and they both say the same thing. Jolie said: “There is no greater pillar of stability than a strong, free, and educated woman.” And Hussein said, “Our society will remain backward and in chains unless its women are liberated, enlightened, and educated.”


Amanda Gluibizzi (Rail): I read about this in your catalogue. My mind was blown. 


Amer: So I said, “I have to do this,” and I did it. It wasn’t technically good, but I felt something is maybe here, and I need to develop it. Then I decided I didn’t want to paint portraits of my “erotic women,” but I wanted to paint women that I know. I don’t want them to be sexy. They may be beautiful, but they are real. There’s no fantasy projected onto them. And they look at you, at the viewer, with their messages. So, people like my sister, my assistant, my friends’ daughters, etc. 


Rail: I like the very forthright “women I know,” and then I love “Part II.”


Amer: The Women I Know Part I was shown at Kewenig Gallery in Berlin, last December. The show lasted one week then had to close because of COVID-19. Not many people saw it.


Rail: It is interesting to see them compared to the sculptures that you’re showing. First of all, you’re right: their gazes are so much more forthright than the women from the magazines. And I was also noticing too, that the mouths of the women you know are closed. They’re very determined. Whereas, of course, women from pornographic magazines—so often their mouths are open, right?


Amer: [Laughs] It’s true!


Rail: When we approach this sculpture, we see the way that you built it, your fingerprints or different pieces of the material that you were pushing together. And then we can see the women you know through her so we can get a sense of your chronology. And then, of course, we can come around the back, and she's entirely flat. The idea of making a flat sculpture in the round: it’s fascinating. 


Amer: These are drawings in the space. There is a front and a back and I am trying to work on this relationship. I believe in an intelligence of the hands. I can think whatever I want, but it’s my hand that decides. I think my hand thinks. I think, then my hand shows me the way. It’s not my thinking through my head; if you just think and you don’t make things yourself, then you cannot progress. That’s why it’s a very important process for me to do the work. It’s not because I only like the handmade. It’s about how you find thoughts with your hands. 


Rail: Do you find that you are using different parts of your hands and arms when making a sculpture? 


Amer: Yes, in fact I can use my left hand. I did a series of sculptures called “Thoughts” only using my left hand. I’m developing them right now in large-scale. 


Rail: I don’t make, so I always am trying to imagine, is it just the fingers or is it the fingers and the wrist? Or is it the fingers and the wrist and the elbow? Or are you having the full movement?


Amer: In the sculpture you must use both hands. No other way. 


Rail: Yes, because you’re pressing the material together.


Amer: Of course. With the paintings you can just hold the brush with one hand.


Rail: That’s hard for me to imagine, looking at how complex these paintings are. I was noticing that I had to start figuring out what they say to us by only looking at the top two lines.


Amer: This is exactly the trick. The message is in the top line, and then it repeats.


Rail: Yes, it gets way too complicated. Particularly Portrait of Trini (2021). I found myself getting a little dizzy looking at the bottom of it. It’s so dense. I was interested too that you’re moving the design as well around the edge of the canvas. 


Amer: Yeah, the edge here is a testing ground. I test on the edge all my colors before applying on the face.


Rail: Part of the complexity, of course, is the skeins of thread running down the face of the canvases, but also that you’re stitching every letter’s outline, as well. There’s so much visual interruption going on. One of the questions I had for you, is such a dumb question, but I didn’t see it in anything that I read about you, is how much of the embroidery are you doing by hand? Are you programming it?


Amer: Everything is by hand. It doesn’t work by programming.


Rail: So how long does that take? 


Amer: It takes a long time, and a lot of people. [Laughter] A lot of hands. Because it’s very involved, and it takes a long time already just to paint. Then a long time to embroider.


Rail: Do you find that the collaborative paintings with Reza Farkhondeh are faster or slower, just a different pace for you? 


Amer: I’ve been doing this collaboration since 2000, such a long time. There is no difference in pace between the collaborative works or the works I just do myself. It is neither faster nor slower.


Rail: I think I would have him do all the parts that make me dizzy. 


Amer: No, no! It’s not like this. It’s not about labor. 


Rail: Is it about pleasure?  


Amer: It’s about pleasure. It’s about finding new ways, new possibilities of painting. I like this collaboration with Reza. The problem is when people force themselves to collaborate. Because it’s two names, it’s very difficult for people to understand that. Okay, I am Ghada as well, and he is Reza as well, and we collaborate when we want. It’s not set. If we don’t want to collaborate for three years, then we don't. It’s okay. We haven’t collaborated on the sculptures. We haven’t had a need to collaborate. He does videos, beautiful videos, I can’t collaborate. I can tell him what I like, give my feedback on his videos, and he does the same, but I have no idea how to make them. We did two videos together; I had the idea just for one, but he’s very good at video and performance. During 2007, with Bush and Blair’s relationship, I was very upset. I met and was invited to work with a chef, to do a dessert for a fundraiser dinner for the American friends of the Tate Modern. And all I was thinking was, “I want to eat Bush and Blair. I’m going to make a cake with Bush and Blair, and I’m going to invite people to eat them.” And Reza was like, “Yeah, but it’s not going to work if you don’t make a performance,” and I told him, “I cannot do performance.” And he said, “Okay, I’ll write the performance for you. If you like it, we can collaborate.” So I said okay, and he did the performance. He wrote it, we played it in the middle of the dessert course, and we filmed it and edited it. And it’s a gorgeous piece of video that we collaborated on.


Another video we did together was for the Brooklyn Museum show Killer Heels: The Art of the High Heeled Shoe (2014–15). I did the sound and Reza the images. It worked. But I’m not a video person. I like music so much, and I cannot sing, but I find sound very fascinating. I can understand sound. I can make the sound for a piece but not a video. 


Rail: It’s funny the way our minds work and don’t work in those ways. I was noticing, too, as we were walking around that the sculptures are basically the same scale as the paintings. All of the faces are about the same size. Do you anticipate—


Amer: No, I didn’t do it on purpose. [Laughter] Regarding the sculpture, this is what I could afford. Sculpture is very expensive, and I had a limited budget. Regarding the painting, I wanted them small, because I am still working on my technique. And then, there are the gardens in this room.


Rail: I haven’t been in one of your gardens, but I see that you have one that’s permanent in Tuscany called Happily Ever After (2009). I was interested, particularly in the cactus garden; cactus gardens are so popular right now. 


Amer: I did that in 1998. 


Rail: I see the reference to Albers’s “Homage to the Square” and Stella, but I was also thinking about François Morellet, someone whose work you would have encountered in France.


Amer: Yes, it’s all about these masters who I love. 


Rail: How do you feel about your gardens being ephemeral? Or are they meant to be …


Amer: I never wanted my garden to be ephemeral. It just happened that no one is interested in buying them. Only Ornellaia wanted a garden and they take very good care of it.


Rail: They’re wonderful; sustainable and sustaining. When you see people interacting with the garden do you feel it’s performance? 


Amer: I don't know if it’s performance, this is not very important to me. 


Rail: I was thinking about that as I was looking at The Women I Know: you do have to get close to them to read, but then you can’t pay attention to them … the idea of being intimate with something is so odd right now that it’s strange.


When we were walking through the gallery you mentioned that you feel like you kind of know the erotic women, but that nobody else knows them. I’m curious about that: do you feel like you understand their personalities? Do you create personalities for them?


Amer: Yes, I do create personalities for them. I use them more than once, they have become my friends, they are in a way “women I know” as well. In general these women kind of are the same, they are an archetype or a stereotype.


Rail: So because of that it was important to paint the portraits of women you know?


Amer: I have decided to paint portraits because historically the only commissions women painters would get were portraits.


Rail: That’s often true. Women had the compulsion to make art but not the opportunity. How do you match the text with the image that you’re working with? 


Amer: For my sister, I just wanted it to be pretty, much like her. [Laughter] My confession was that I wanted to do this text with her portrait. And she said, “No, it’s not me!” And I said, “It’s perfectly you.” [Laughter] The text says, “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” She didn't like the way I did it, but I did it. 


Rail: It is strange to have one’s portrait made, because of course then you learn how other people see you. Which is a distinctly very different thing from the way you see yourself. 


Amer: I was very nervous because Portrait of Noha - RFGA (2021) was a commission, it was my first commission. I wanted it to be resemblant and I wanted Noha to like it and this is very nerve wracking. It is very difficult to make the portraits resemblant because of the technique used as well. The text in a way weaves the portrait and not vice versa.


Rail: And you’re working from a photograph, too. 


Amer: Yes, I think I need to make a photograph reference. 


Rail: And is it just with your phone? 


Amer: My iPhone. I don’t need more. 


Rail: Of course, the phone takes a different picture from a camera. It really zeroes in on the center of your face, it kind of manipulates your face in an interesting and for some of us, like me, an unflattering way.


Amer: [Laughs] But I mean they’re not very flattering: They’re portraits, it’s not like they don’t look good, but they’re not sexy or anything. 


Rail: Do you find that the photograph that you take looks like what you think the women look like? Or is there a certain manipulation that happens?


Amer: My main concern is that when I write the texts sometimes the letters go in the eyes, I don’t know where the lines will hit the eyes; this technique manipulates by itself the drawing against my will. The line drawing I make from the photograph looks pretty similar to the photo, but then it gets totally manipulated by the way the process works.


Rail: Do you try to avoid painting any red around the eyes so that people don't look like they’re bloodshot?


Amer: I am learning to figure out how to do this. In the first portrait I did, I thought that I’m going to do it exactly as planned, I’m not going to cheat, and I’m going to make them very flat. And then it didn't work! So, I had to go in after and just make modifications to the painting. [Laughs


Rail: I think especially with the archetypal women, it’s different when they’re flat because they’re meant to be projected onto, for better or worse. But for women who are regular women, especially people you know, women you care about, it’s different from something that’s totally flat. 


Amer: Exactly. 


Rail: It seems almost like a confrontation. 


Amer: Right. Exactly.


Rail: And will you do a part three?


Amer: I don't know yet. I need a little break before starting part three.


Rail: Would that drastically change their format? Because they seem, if not totally square, then close. 


Amer: Actually, almost all the squares are what was left over from my erotic women series. All the stretchers; it’s what I had before COVID-19 in the studio. The Women I Know Part III will be more rectangular than square.


Rail: That’s an unexpected fallout from COVID-19: I need to make work, and this is what I have.


Amer: Yeah, exactly. Actually, COVID-19 was great for me. The combination of having cancer and staying home during COVID-19 was great because I had drawn these before I knew what my condition was. I was supposed to work on these portraits later and had plans to go to South Africa to make bronzes and to Mexico for ceramics. But none of this happened. I stayed home with a heavy treatment, these portraits were manageable for me and it was the main activity for me that made my treatment more bearable.


Rail: The self-portrait that you did in part one [Self Portrait in Black and White (2020)]—is that the first self-portrait that you had done? 


Amer: I did one already, a self-portrait in ceramic. 


Rail: In sculpture? Or—


Amer: In painting. Not yet in sculpture. I painted my hair in black and white because it was during my treatment and I had lost it. It was difficult for me to paint myself in color during that time. 


Rail: I can definitely see why that would be important. You mentioned that you're going to do part three of Women I Know, but you want to work on something else, so what are you working on now?


Amer: I am working on a new series of bronzes that are taken from my ceramic boxes. I will show them for my first retrospective in France that will be in three locations in Marseille: MUCEM, La Vieille Charité, and the FRAC.I will be showing these sculptures in New York at Tina Kim Gallery in October 2022 as well.


Rail: And do they have an armature? How do they stand?


Amer: They do not have any armature and they stand with their weight and form.


Rail: Three galleries allows your work to occupy space in a provocative way. One of the things that really struck me when I was reading the catalogue was a quote from you about studying in France and that you weren’t allowed to learn how to paint. You were frustrated by that, of course, but you learned a lot about art history. You said you learned to talk beautifully about the art that you were not allowed to make. 


Amer: It’s true! In France, they love to talk. Every Monday was aesthetics, every Tuesday we had to talk about art, for three years. They wanted to prepare you to know how to think. But what about the hands? And art history was so important. We had private tutors in art history. They informed us about what to read. Not only art history, but in dance, in literature, about films. It was a great school.


Rail: It’s interesting to me then that you turn to embroidery. I was noticing throughout the writing about you that there’s a way that it’s talked about as being submissive, and then thinking of course about the pornographic women and the way that they’re intended to be submissive in a specific way. And then it’s also talked about as being subversive.


Amer: It’s both.


Rail: It’s both! I was realizing that every time I would read one of those two words, I would have to go back and understand which word was used, which feels very appropriate to your practice, that these words might actually brush up against each other and be combative, and you have to read them carefully to understand what they’re meaning. 


Amer: Exactly.


Rail: What do you want to talk about that nobody ever asks you?


Amer: Um, I don’t know! You know what’s really funny, I did an interview with my sister Sahar Amer for Sunnylands. And the things that you hate? That’s what they ask you. Should I tell you?


Rail: I would very much like to hear this.


Amer: I hate when people talk about me as only being Middle Eastern. What? I mean, I am Middle Eastern, I have Middle Eastern blood, but I grew up in France, and I studied French! I lived in Egypt until I was 11, and then I went to France, and I grew up there. I’m Egyptian, but I’m also French and American.


And as well, the question of being Muslim. Why don’t you say Jewish artists? Or Christian or Buddhist artists? You know? Why do you have to tell people I am Muslim? It’s very annoying to me.


Rail: I can understand that because it means that your work is separate even if it’s mentioned in a way where people are trying to be inclusive. It still sets your work aside as being this one thing, it represents this one thing. And, of course, ideally art represents itself.


Desire is a curious thing to think about with your work. Because with the pornographic women, there is desire, though desire of a certain shade. What sort of desire do you hope that someone would bring to looking at your portraits?


Amer: None.


Rail: Do you think about yourself as a member of a school of artists who work with embroidery as their medium?


Amer: No, I am not part of any school that makes embroidery and I do not even like the idea.


Rail: A lot of writing about you starts by placing you amongst others who work with embroidery, but I don’t know that that helps us to understand your work.


Amer: I don’t think so because I don’t like to sew, actually. Really, I don’t! I don’t love it. The only reason why I chose to make embroidery is to speak about women in art history and how they were not allowed to paint.