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. 

Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202 (Poppy Hotel, Room 202)’, 1970-73. Fabric, wool, synthetic fur, cardboard, and Ping-Pong balls 133 7/8 x 122 1/8 x 185 in.

The Tate’s first large-scale exhibition of artist Dorothea Tanning for twenty-five years offers one hundred works from her incredible seven-decade career and leads the viewer from room to room. This is rather apt, as Tanning’s paintings hinge on the transitory. Doors are often left ajar, hanging open with light peeking through in ‘Eine Kleine Nachtmusik’, or leading to a mise en abyme of other doorways in ‘Birthday’, or literally protruding from the canvas in ‘Door 84’ as two female figures push against the frame. As the gallery-goer wanders from room to room, through doorway after doorway, they transverse deeper into the unsettling, disturbing and brilliant wonderland. Curiouser and curiouser, the eight rooms vaguely follow the chronological trajectory of Illinois-born Tanning, from her early engagement with gothic oil-paint tableau that saw realism collide with fantasy, to flamboyant costume designs for the ballet and theatre, to her later paintings which are looser, more abstract and gestural, where body parts merge into unintelligible, uncanny dioramas of colour and affect. Throughout the later rooms soft, fabric, textile and oddly tactile material sculptures (created on Tanning’s sewing machine and stuffed with wool) burst through wallpaper and protrude from stands; a disembodied pregnant bulge here (‘Emma’), a curved leg there.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Deux mots (Two Words)’, 1963. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Tanning first encountered surrealism in the 1930s, having moved to New York to pursue a career as an artist. She described and embraced surrealism as a ‘limitless expanse of POSSIBILITY’, with a profound ‘effort to plumb our deepest subconscious to find out about ourselves’. This impulse to engage with the deepest and often darkest parts of human nature can be seen across her phenomenal oeuvre. Walking into the first room, her famous ‘Endgame’ stands to the right of the entrance, denoting a surreal chessboard and a stamping glass slipper. This playful piece, the curators state, ‘represents intellectual and artistic interplay with members of the surrealist circle, as well as her romantic link with Ernst.’ The vague story of Tanning and the surrealist painter Max Ernst’s meeting has been told many times; he would name her self-portrait ‘Birthday’ (many critics have cited this as the ‘birth’ of her as a surrealist painter) , play a game of chess after the exhibition they met at, and then would marry in 1946. Ernst and his influence is often discussed in conflation with Tanning’s artistic practice; but, walking through the many rooms in this brilliant exhibition, thoughts of Ernst barely make it through the first door.

What overwhelms the exhibition is Tanning’s engagement with the female body and desire. Bodies are often depicted in movement, flux or transition. Whether it’s a liminal lingering on the precipice of a doorway (‘Birthday’), dancing (‘Tango Lives’), or caught in a kaleidoscopic whirlwind of oil paint where you can just about make out the shape of a torso or an arm (‘Deux Mot’); the paintings are sensual, sinister and evasive in their depiction of space, movement and embodiment.

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Tango Lives’, 1977. Oil on canvas 51 3/16 x 38 3/16 in.

Perhaps this fixation with movement or motion within her painting is a means of resistance,  flight and freedom. These paintings move away from or outside of the hegemonic, patriarchal constraints of convention, gender stereotypes, tradition, marriage, motherhood and domesticity. Tanning’s soft sculpture of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is ‘Emma’ is a stark and startling commentary on motherhood and tradition; a huge cushiony pregnant stomach that protrudes from dirty, tea-stained Victorian frills and lace. Tanning’s ‘Maternity’ is set in a harsh, overwhelming and infinite desert where a despondent mother cradles her child and a small, Pekingese dog looks out to the viewer with a human child’s face amid the fluffy dangling dog ears. Tanning’s depiction of maternity is odd, affronting and ominous. Room Three shows Tanning’s many depictions of a sinister ‘Family Table’. She subverts traditional notions of a family dinner table, stating these paintings are ‘generally a comment on the hierarchy within the sacrosanct family’. A huge, towering and authoritarian father figure looms in the background in ‘Portrait de Famille’, and ‘Some Roses and Their Phantoms’ scatters wilted, decrepit petals over dinner plates.

The most striking is the installation piece that awaits around a corner in Room Seven: ‘Hôtel du Pavot, Chambre 202’. A dusty french hotel room with soft fabric limbs, bellies and shapes that capture a startling yet sensual sense of the uncanny valley as bulges of stuffed fabric are contorted in what might be pain or pleasure. Whether it’s an episode of Stranger Things with demogorgons bursting through walls, or perhaps a line from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper: ‘I don’t like to look out of the windows even—there are so many of those creeping women, and they creep so fast. I wonder if they all come out of that wall-paper as I did?’, or the song that Tanning named the installation sculpture after; this piece is hugely evocative and haunting. The odd material limbs extend out of the walls, merge with the furniture and encroach on one’s very own sense of materiality. Caught in motion between object and subject, alive or inanimate, Tanning reflects that she wanted the dingy hotel room to look as if ‘the wallpaper will further tear with screams’.  

Dorothea Tanning, ‘Emma’, 1970. Fabric, wool, and lace 11 11/16 x 25 3/8 x 21 5/8 in. (body: 11 1/4 x 22 x 12 1/2 in.)

Through these eight rooms, through the doorways in and protruding out of Tanning’s work, and through this collection spanning her seven-decade career, this exhibition demonstrates and celebrates her profound contribution to surrealism as a movement, and explores the ways her subversive approach to craft, practice and feminism dismantled the reductive tyranny of the patriarchal family portrait, motherhood and allowed the female form to launch itself chaotically and gloriously through new doorways to explore, as Tanning desires, ‘unknown but knowable states’.

Dorothea Tanning is at the Tate Modern, London, until 9 June 2019. Book tickets here.


Words: Polly Hember, a PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London.


All artwork by Dorothea Tanning, images courtesy of https://www.dorotheatanning.org/