LJ Roberts’ Queer Epics

LJ Roberts (b.1980) lives and works in Brooklyn, NY and is known for large-scale textile installations, intricate embroideries, artist books, collages and sculpture. Their work investigates the overlaps of queer and trans politics, alternative kinships, narrative, and material deviance. Daniel Fountain speaks to LJ here about the relationships between craft, identity and queer theory, and how this manifests itself in their practice.

L: Portrait of Deb (1988-199?)
R: Detail From the series Portraits (2011-)

For you, what is inherently queer about craft? What makes textile practices in particular ripe for strategies of queering?

I find that issues of marginality I encounter as a queer, gender non-conforming and non-binary person, often mirror the position(s) of textile and craft within visual culture. The margins that queerness and craft inhabit are often mutually reflective. I engage in material deviance to illustrate this. There is something productive about working from the margins while simultaneously committing to a practice of de-centralization. Furthermore, I find my experience in the world requires flexibility, adaptability, resilience, and resourcefulness as essential for working and living. I use tools and techniques such as toy knitting machines, single-strand hand embroidery, a sock making machine, quilting, and appliqué particularly because they are portable, accessible, and can adapt to a variety of circumstances; which is also how I aim to move through life. There is a congruency and a mirroring there; craft and queerness enable each other beneficially.

I know that we both share a love for texts such as José Esteban Muñoz’s Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics (1999). Could you talk a bit about how the tactics of queer theory influence your artistic practice? Or vice versa?

Certainly there is an overperformance of craft materials and techniques in my work that challenge certain stereotypes of craft. I think that a lot of craft stereotypes are rooted in antiquated ideas and structures that people are stuck in – a comfort zone. A lot of these ideas, often rooted in binaries, are counter to the complexity of life, identity, material and experience. So perhaps the work I make is productively uncomfortable. When I look at what I do (such as attempting feats with children’s toys) there’s an absurdity and also a really earnest risk – every piece I make feels risky. I do not wish to make art that does not feel like I am pushing myself. I suppose a lot of the queer theory I am interested in is about the impossibility of simplification, the politics of risk and re-imagining the possible. I also think it is important to note that queer theory is intertwined and fused with all sorts of other identities and factors, so that plays into what I do as well. I think a lot about accessibility in my work and what is legible. I want there to be feeling in work and I want the work to be a conduit to entering conversations that are challenging, exciting, inspiring, and productive.

On a similar note, the use of colour, texture and scale is particularly striking in your work – do you consider it to have a camp aesthetic?

Honestly, for as much as I value camp, I don’t consider my work to be all that campy at the moment. Someone said to me recently that I construct ‘queer epics’. This doesn’t mean the work is entirely rooted in reality, of course. There is myth, history, speculation, possible implosion, and so on. Of course, much of camp is epic and some of it is not, which gives it just as much, if not more, power. I don’t consider what I am doing to have much irony. A lot of what I do is translating my imagination, my thoughts, my fantasies, my anxiety, my reality into material. I’m certainly open to other people’s opinions on that though!

In a variety of works (such as in The Queer Houses of Brooklyn, 2011) there is often a particular narrative about queer worldmaking, or a celebration of the alternative familial structures that members of our community quite literally craft. I wondered if you wanted to expand a little on the importance of that?

LJ: I’ve always been drawn to alternative kin structures, also sometimes called ‘chosen family’. My friends and mentors and lovers have been central to my formation and survival as a queer person who struggled with being raised in a conservative suburb of Detroit. In Heather Love’s book Feeling Backwards (2007) she speaks of these networks, friendships, and relationships – these non-biological kinship structures – as one of the greatest achievements of queer culture and I agree. I personally struggle with what I view and experience as queer assimilation into heteronormative and now homonormative structures and frameworks. I suppose a lot of my work aims to grasp onto kinship ideas that are counter to assimilation and to imagine how these kinships can be re-imagined even further in the future as we approach unprecedented geo-political and environmental circumstances.

I also want to add that I’m really trying to explode ideas of queer kinships at the moment. For most of my life, and I started thinking about queer kinships at a very young age before I could even name them, I felt as though they did not include biological family. It felt like blasphemy. However, I’m reconsidering this as I have multiple people to whom I am biologically related to that I am forming queer friendships with – some of them queer and gender non-conforming and some of them not.

Some of your work is very representational, but others (such as Portrait of Deb, 1988-199?) seem to form abstract portraits of queer bodies and experiences – what do you think the advantages are of the latter?

I think one of the most useful tactics that the concept of ‘queer’ engages is that we can never make assumptions about a person’s identity and that people’s identities are not static, that they are intersectional, and that they can change. Abstraction doesn’t often allow for pointed assumptions based on a physical image of the body and I think this is useful. This is not to say that traditional portraits aren’t useful, in fact they are critical; for marginalized people images of people they identify with are often scarce in popular media, though this has begun to turn a bit I think.  We need to see people we relate to and that provides reassurance that we are not alone and that people forge forward.

I’m aware that a lot of your textile works in particular take a painstaking amount of time to create. What are you currently working on?

My current body of work is centered around depictions of vehicles and vessels that have often harboured queer and trans people, allowing them to shape their lives counter to hetero and patriarchal norms. But I am also approaching this project with an awareness that the politics of migration and environmental collapse make movement fraught. I have a personal and specific anxiety around this due to being raised in Detroit in the 1980s where I saw the auto industry collapse and the city fall into ruins. Yet, life continued to flourish. There’s a lot of resiliency there for sure. Therefore, I am creating quilted and collaged post-apocalyptic vehicles and speculating about how they might continue legacies of resilience and kinship formation.


Words: Daniel Fountain (he/they) and LJ Roberts (they/them)

About the Artist

LJ Roberts has exhibited widely in major institutions including The Victoria and Albert Museum, The Smithsonian American Art Museum, and Museum of Arts and Design to name but a few. In 2015 LJ was one of nine recipients of The White House Champions of Change Award for LGBTQI Artists presented by President Obama. Their first museum commission was included in the critically acclaimed show Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall at Brooklyn Museum in 2019. Recently they have been in residence at the Textile Arts Center, IASPIS-Stockholm, and Pioneer Works. Last year LJ won The President’s Award for Art and Activism from Women’s Caucus for Art and they are currently Faculty at Parsons School of Design in New York City.

More of LJ’s work can be found here.
All images are copyright of the artist.

Navigating Cultural Liminality: Private Rooms by Ghada Amer

Image result for ghada amer private room

Offering a critique of imperialist thought, Edward Said’s Orientalism created a paradigmatic shift in understanding the relationship between Western (Occidental) and non-Western (Oriental) cultures. Yet Orientalism still pervades mainstream representations of non-Western cultures, which oscillate between intense fetishization and demonization, often in almost the same breath. See for example Dalia Dawood’s description of the Aladdin remake, released this year, as ‘yet another example of Hollywood constantly misrepresenting the Middle East either as a barbaric place of war and terror or exoticised as one full of allure and belly dancers.’[1] Self-Orientalism, then, is when the East or non-Western individuals represent themselves through the eyes of the West, reflecting the unequal cultural relationship. Cross-cultural representation is therefore fraught with difficulties, and culturally liminal artists are often tasked – willingly or unwillingly – with negotiating these difficulties.

Ghada Amer was born in Egypt but moved to France at a young age where she was then educated, she now lives and works in New York City. This background places Amer firmly within the precarious culturally liminal zone. In Private Rooms (1998), Amer negotiates the danger of eliciting the Western desire for the culturally Other whilst simultaneously employing explicitly cultural material for Western art consumption. The piece explores the themes of culture and sexuality, both sites of intense Orientalist interest, further complicating Amer’s negotiation task in avoiding the pitfall of self-Orientalising.

Private Rooms is emblematic of Amer’s oeuvre in its use of embroidery, calligraphy and allusion to the female body. These material and visual techniques all speak in some way to Amer’s thematic concerns surrounding sexuality and culture; a sculpture comprised of fifteen suspended satin garment bags, dyed with rich saturated tones of blue, pink, green, orange and grey whose shape mimic the body of a woman in chador. The satin of the garment bags shimmer responsively to the light and are offset by the clinical white gallery walls. These material characteristics lend the piece a voluptuous beauty and life-like presence within the gallery space. On closer inspection, one will find embroidered across the satin garment bags all of the sentences that speak about women in the Qur’an, translated into French.

Embroidery

By using the medium of embroidery Amer participates in the tradition of feminist embroidery art which aims to elevate the medium of needlework, a medium which has been historically feminised and thus not considered a ‘high art’ form. Rozsika Parker aptly describes how embroidery ‘has provided a source of pleasure and power for women, while being indissolubly linked to their powerlessness.’[2]  We can see clearly how this consideration might be applied to the female body and sexuality, a site of both power and oppression. Thus, by applying embroidery directly onto the chador-like figures, Amer brings this allegorical comparison into sharp relief.  However, Amer complicates the Western focus of the feminist embroidery tradition. Whilst Amer’s use of embroidery has been discussed in reference to English sewing practices, we should note the historical Orientalist interest in oriental carpets that it also connotes. This complicates Amer’s allusions through embroidery because they come to represent not only the relegation of female arts, but also the Orientalist fascination with Eastern craft products, an interest which was served and perpetuated by an unequal system of cultural and economic imperialist relations.[3] Rather than reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them, Private Rooms through its use of embroidery unites diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures. Rather than using Eastern cultural imagery/material to cultivate an Orientalist sense of ‘authenticity’ or intrigue for Western art consumption, she situates her materials within a universal framework.

Calligraphy

Through use of the embroidered word, Amer makes reference to the calligraphic tradition which is so central to Islamic art. However, Amer interferes with the visual language of Islamic calligraphic traditions through her use of heavy-handed stitching, inclusion of loose dangling threads and use of capitalised roman script.[4]  This unorthodox use of the calligraphic medium reveals the possibility of operating within the aesthetic boundaries of a culture whilst inflecting it with a unique sense of identity. Another dimension is added to the calligraphic element of the work by the fact it represents words from the Qur’an: due to the special reverence for the Qur’an in Islam as being both miraculous and inimitable, this could be considered inherently subversive. However, within the Islamic tradition, once the Qur’anic word is translated it no longer possesses the uniquely sacred character of the Arabic original. Amer therefore simultaneously demonstrates cultural respect, or desire to avoid offence, by not using the original holy Arabic, whilst gently challenging the tradition by asserting her right to use and reflect upon the text (and to assert a specifically gendered reflection through the inclusion only of verses which refer to women). Thus, Amer demonstrates the ability to be simultaneously respectful and critical of a culture through her ambivalent use of the Qur’anic word. Furthermore, the use of translation foregrounds an important thematic concern: that of the inevitable translation effect in encounters between different languages, and more broadly, between different cultures.

Female Dress and The Female Form

Whilst not being a figurative piece Private Rooms is saturated with allusions to female dress and the female form. As Fereshteh Daftari perceptively observes, the loose threads in her embroidered works evoke ‘the reverse side of a highly finished sartorial item.’[5] As previously mentioned, the suspended figures evoke an image of chador clad Muslim women and the use of clothing bags as the primary material only serves to make this link more lucid. A multiplicity of meanings are latent within the sartorial body imagery of Private Rooms. The female form is symbolised as hanging lifelessly, as closed within a metaphorical chador, evoking a claustrophobia that is enhanced by the use of bags which create a symbolic double enclosure. This claustrophobic imagery is then further enclosed with textual embroidery. We must peel back many layers to reveal the physical body which lies beneath. In this way, Amer successfully reflects the layers of coded social meaning, as well as physical layers, which wrap the female body. This is particularly pertinent within the framework of the Western fascination for Islamic veiling practices, as well as revivalist Islamic movements’ emphasis on the same. Amer demonstrates how women are encased within sartorial expectations, as well as the weight of tradition. The Western art spectator adds a final layer of ideologically coded wrapping as they view the piece.

Even in her use of Oriental cultural material then, in this instance cultural sartorial material, Amer is able to avoid over-simplification by consciously questioning the layers of meaning which are piled onto the female form. Furthermore, she brings the Western art consumer into the process of meaning-making, encouraging them to question their complicity in the process of ideological entrapment of women in general, and Muslim women in particular. Additionally, the sensual beauty of the fabric and colours used in the piece act to offset the dark and heavy image associated with Islamic restrictions of dress and thus undermine Orientalist perceptions of the traditional Islamic woman.

Through her use of embroidery, calligraphy and imagery of the sartorial female form, in Private Rooms Amer presents a nuanced and sensitive vision of cultural difference. She avoids reasserting tropes from the ‘Occidental script’ and thus reinforcing oppositional notions of Us and Them. Instead she unites diverse experiences of oppression across cultures and undermines Occidental notions of Islamic womanhood in various ways such as through presenting diverse Qur’anic views on the subject. Furthermore, she universalises her materials, as can be seen in the use of embroidery, or shows the potential to adapt cultural material, as can be seen in her subversion of the Islamic medium of calligraphy. Importantly, she demonstrates consciousness of the Western consumer of her work, and consciously creates room for this viewing dynamic within the piece and in doing so takes control of this viewing dynamic: the very antithesis of self-Orientalising. The piece thus utilises Amer’s status as a liminal artist between cultures to bridge the cultural dichotomy between Us and Them rather than reinforce it.


Words by Alis Shea


[1] Dalia Dawood, ‘The new Aladdin film is shot in Surrey, but that’s the least of its problems’, Gal-dem (28 May 2019) http://gal-dem.com/the-new-aladdin-film-is-just-as-orientalist-as-the-last/ [accessed 24th October 2019].

[2] Laura Auricchio, ‘Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures’, Art Journal (2001), p. 27. 

[3] Brian Spooner, ‘Weavers and dealers: authenticity of an oriental carpet,’ in The Social Life of Things, ed. Arjun Appaduri (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), p. 224.

[4] Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2003), p. 177. 

[5] Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, p. 177.