‘Home is no longer a dwelling but the untold story of a life being lived.’
John Berger, And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos
The praxis and history of craft is intimately intertwined with the domestic. Its domesticity is linked to the status it has long held as a devalued art form: craft is women’s work, a pastime or simply a way of creating decorative items that find their use in the home. Art belongs, we have been told, behind glass cases in galleries and institutions, whereas the products of craft live amongst us in the everyday, at home. However, the fact that the art world is beginning to take notice of craft and value it on its own terms raises questions about how craft enters the gallery space.
If home, as John Berger suggests, is the untold and unseen story of a life, craft weaves itself into this rich interior life of the domestic. Craft objects dwell in familiar everyday spaces. Their materiality records the experiences of our daily lives: the cracked piece of pottery, a frayed blanket, a snagged jumper, these all speak of our intimacy with the objects around us. It works to bring people together in a shared home or community; to think through the threads that connect us to our environment.
There is a long history of silence, untold stories, women and the domestic. Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party (1979) installation critiqued the patriarchal erasure of women’s place in the history of civilisation, through a process of domestic labour and craft. Nicole Horgan reviews Patricia Kaersenhout’s community art project Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, inwhich the artist expands on and challenges Chicago’s project by inviting 39 black women and women of colour across 2000 years of history to the dinner party. Biographies of women like Queen Amanirenas and activist Marsha P. Johnson are included among the translucent glassware and table runners (made at community ‘stitch-in’ events) at this ‘table of disruption’, offering a new perspective on the canon of art history. Alis Shea discusses Ghada Amer’s Private Rooms, highlighting the tendency to view Amer’s use of embroidery in relation to English sewing practices; in the process, she notes the historical Orientalist fascination with and appropriation of Eastern crafts. Private Rooms, Shea suggests, utilises the domestic craft of embroidery to ‘unite diverse experiences of oppression which occur in both Western and Eastern cultures’.
In this issue on craft and domesticity, motherhood inevitably emerges as a prominent theme. There can be a tedious and time-consuming element to domestic art, with its relentless rituals of washing, cooking, mending, and sweeping. Sarah Cameron reflects on how the crafting of a family home impacts on and speaks to artistic making: in sweepRANT, Cameron laments the ennui the everyday tasks of the domestic, but plays with its ritualistic and repetitive nature to create a poem that weaves together her roles of artist, mother, and homemaker. Cameron reflects on these roles in an accompanying essay, ‘Two Heads, Two Hearts, and the Mother Goddess’. The crossovers between domestic and creative labour and the labour of childbirth are picked up on in Alessandra Leruste’s review of Spilt Milk’s (a Scottish social enterprise that promotes the work of artists who are mothers) recent showcase Re: Birth. Exhibiting artist Laura Ajayi’s We Used to Be So Much Closer – a soft sculpture that evokes the umbilical cord, but which is made from lint collected out of her family’s tumble dryer – reminds us of the interconnected nature of these intimate forms of crafting, creating and making. In this month’s spotlight feature, artist Blandine Martin similarly dismantle narratives of quotidian objects to question and transform their relationship to the domestic. Handwoven tapestries from recycled materials, sand, timber take on a new form; their title – objet sans importance – seems to pose a question, asking us to reassess the roles these items play in our lives and our connections to them.
It is Hull-based artist Ella Dorton who blurs the lines between the gallery, the community, and the domestic with her striking fabric works. In a recent exhibition, she turned the Humber Street Gallery into a space that ‘you could relax, sit down and feel at home in’. Her domestic portraits draw parallels between the ‘worn-out-ness of the fabric’ and the ‘worn-out-ness of peoples’ homes and lives’, using the intimate setting of the interior to explore broader socio-political issues. In an interview with Lottie Whalen, she discusses making art that creates material and conceptual connections between the domestic and the global, situating personal narratives within the context of broader political crises.
The artists and makers in this issue each highlight craft’s potential to shatter cosy notions of domesticity, transforming the home into a site of subversion, activism, and resistance. Appealing to the senses, craft creates intimacy and draws our attention to the embodied experiences of modern life; it opens up a space where the stories of our daily lives collide with global narratives, foregrounding the interconnected nature of our domestic and public worlds.
Spilt Milk is a Scottish social enterprise whose main goal is to promote mother artists and give them more opportunities. Anyone who identifies as a mother can become a member, and all members can exhibit in their members’ show. This year’s theme “re: birth” has inspired the artists to submit a variety of works, ranging through an incredible array of media and subject matters. It invited many interpretations, with works addressing questions on pregnancy, breastfeeding, one’s relationship with a child, or one’s identity (or loss of identity) as a mother. Themes of domesticity underlie this exhibition, highlighting the complex ways that motherhood and domestic spaces go hand in hand in our collective imaginary.
In the first corner of the exhibition, Suzanne Little’s Discharged (2019), with its crochet-ed stains on white cotton knickers, tells the story of a difficult pregnancy; Kasey Jones’ round belly contrasts with her pyramidal cage in Patriarch Confinement: The Business of Birth (2015), condemning the unnatural, sometimes damaging ways modern medicine manages childbirth; The Birth (1997) by Josie McCoy is a blunt depiction of a wrinkled child’s head coming out of a vagina. In the middle of these visceral considerations of childbirth lays Laura Ajayi’s intriguing sculpture We Used to Be So Much Closer (2017), a cord she weaved with lint she collected for eighteen months from her family’s dryer. Meaning is created and nuanced in the interaction of all these different creations treating different facets of such a complex topic as motherhood. Surrounded by these images of pregnancy, Ajayi’s soft sculpture invites questions about labour (birth) as well as domestic labour, and the sometimes-difficult negotiations a parent and a child must make around their relationship as it develops.
It is worth listing all the “ingredients” that make up Charlene Scott’s Unfold (2019): household paint, ink, graphite, milk, natural dyes and inks – made from cabbage, avocado, rowan tree bark, charcoal & sandstone – on satin, calico and canvas. Elements from one of Scott’s former projects were cut and stitched together to create this new piece. The textiles were transformed through various colouring processes involving everyday food scraps, household paints, and inks the artist created from charcoal and local sandstone. Given the nature of the dyes, the colours and patterns will inevitably keep changing through time. The artist says she likes the idea of the piece evolving beyond her. It is easy to draw parallels with the domestic work involved in raising a child who will also evolve beyond the parent’s control.
Mya Cluff explores what it feels like to occupy a body as a mother with Offering in White (2019). The uneven ceramic shows a body covered in stretch marks, surrounded by what looks like a white blanket. The series of photographs Ritual (2019) by Alexandra Knox also explores themes of the mother’s body as food, but in a very different manner. Whereas Knox’s piece is sexual, provocative and humorous, Cluff just confronts you, softly, with the fact that a mother makes a gift of her body and this will leave marks on her body forever. Similarly, Jill Skulina’s ceramic And Repeat (2018) shows a woman lying on her back, a tired look on her face, surrounded by breastmilk pumps. Skulina tells the story of how her baby was taken to the N.I.C.U and a nurse told her that her breastmilk would give her daughter better chances of survival. She had to pump regularly everyday for weeks, and this story is represented in the vessel. The many meanings of the word vessel make ceramics a perfect medium to discuss the role of a mother’s body as food. The way the mother is presented, with a stylised nimbus around her head, is reminiscent of the imagery of saints. The shape of the bowl vaguely resembles the shape of a baby’s body, but also calls to mind a baptismal font. The tedious, almost mundane task of pumping milk is elevated to a spiritual, sacred status.
What unites most of these pieces beyond the theme is the importance of the medium, the materials, in conveying affects and meanings. There is a physicality to them. We can sense the body involved in domestic labour or taking care of a child; it is palpable in the artwork. The last two pieces I want to discuss best embody this. Imogen di Sapia weaved Chromosome 17 (2019) as a reflection on her craft in relation to her matrilineal heritage. She discovered that her grandmothers were weavers as well and it posed questions about heritage, even when one is not aware of it. Drawing from both tradition and technology, she weaved her DNA into this tapestry; each line contains information about her and her ancestry. Di Sapia encourages the public to touch and smell her pieces, get physical with them. Finally, the piece that dominated the exhibition room was Interruptions, an installation by Mother Art: Revisited. Two texts intercut one another: a stern voice recites a manifesto, demanding good living conditions for all, while another says “it could have been my brother/cousin/neighbour/etc.” Footage from a laundrette is projected onto a wall; between the projector and the wall is a laundry line. On the line hangs an accumulation of textiles, textures, colours and messages: the manifesto’s text on a tablecloth, a jacket saying “Mexico”, a kitchen apron with paint stains, a baby blanket with crosses stitched on it, a child’s political questions on handkerchiefs. This overwhelming set-up forces the spectator to analyse each detail in isolation in order to reconstruct meaning. The ensemble gives the impression of mothers organising politically as they perform domestic tasks. A home is a complicated, messy, layered place. Interruptions shows us how politics affect our domestic lives, and vice versa. This sentence has become a cliché but still holds truth: the personal is political.
I don’t want to sweep the floor any more I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore I must have swept it 10 times today I don’t want to sweep the floor anymore.
It’s dull, monotonous, dreary, drab irksome, humdrum, nut-dummin’ banal. I havna nothing ‘gainst sweeping per se I quite like it actually; but to do it quite as much as I do steals my intellect, vibrancy, my derring-do – I wager it would steal yours too.
ENNUI the tedium of R e p e t i t i on day in day in again, shall I say it again? R e p e t i t i o n day in day in again. R E P E T I T I O N tition Re Tit ion ion Re Tit Tit ion shall I say it again?
Annoying isn’t it?
That’s what I feel like about the floor.
O the dishes too AND the shopping, the cleaning, the tidying the washing, O! Everest o’ Washing A summit o’ grime No pristine peak an’ pennin’ ma name in a HIStory Book The Cleaning The Tidying The Washing The Sewin’ The Sortin’ The Binnin’ the peggin’ o’ clothes to dry again foldin’ them makkin’ them neat pairin’ the socks seekin’ the space inby the drawers squeezin’ an’ stuffin’, huffin, puffin’ clenchin’ gr’und teeth takin’ a breath overwhelmed wi’ mess ‘shit how to detox this LOT?’ an’ when I think I’ve done it aw boo hoo No Luck, it’s to do aw over when I look up.
The cookin’ The cookin’ The COOKin’! The filin’ o’ plates in the machine that washes them clean until they’re dirty aw over again! The Dinner Breakfast Snacks the Lunches packt, shoppin’ again, the sweeping, the SWEEPING the guilt I’m chucking stuff oot we should be EATIN’! Evidently I’m no employing The Brain I should be using to be choosing to do things BETTER.
Regurgitate an’ spew it oot! Clean it up, aw that muck! For do you know it’s what I do ‘lang wi billion other wummen too? Day in day oot, shakin’ oor brains aboot, sloosh oot, OOT our Ears! BRAINS spill through drains ratatat on pot an’ pans splatter stairs, squirt the sink plop plop in stew, the bin too, the cat food, spew atop the grimy floor, doon the grubby uncleaned Loo…
Oh Sisyphus I am not heavin’ a rock up hill til it tumbles in punishin’ cycle. Nor Prometheus. My liver is intact, not ramshed, re-growed an’ ramshed once mair by Eagle beak an’ hungry claw. Not Tantalus I foriver tantalised; nor Ixion spun in perpetuity on flaming wheel …whit destiny! Alas, Mythical status is not afforded Wummen’s Daily Chores. No tale will be wrote o’ bakin’ a pie, stitchin’ a rip, plumpin’ a pillow sloppin’ wairm milk intil mashed potato – though certes it’s mythical in its endlessness, ness, ness indeed I empathise wi’ Sisyphus… Forsooth, I do not suffer like them ancient souls above For they are Men An’ wumman are nowhere near the same A Bloke’s sufferin’ is Monumental Wummans’ only Temperamental Downright screechingly Hysterical! Forsooth I do not suffer like them ancient souls above I do not bleed or burn I’m just fed up o’ sweepin’ the floor I’ve done it so many times afore I don’t want to do it anymore. I don’t want to do it again.
Two Heads, Two Hearts, and the Mother Goddess
I’m a Fraud. I’m a sometime-artist. A sometime-performer. A sometime-writer. A sometimer. Sometimes I’m a non-artist, a non-performer, a non-writer. A non-body. A Nobody. In spite of this lack of entity and identity, an artist is what I am. It’s my safe space. Without my art I’m adrift in dark and deep choppy seas. Defeated. Inert. A Dead Soul.
I’m also a Mother. A full-time Mother. Sometimes, a sometime Mother. A non-Mother, too. A Fraud. NB I put Artist before Mother! Gasp! The Guilt! “What does that mean?” hisses the judging She-Critic in my head, “A BAD Mother? Certainly neither properly Artist nor properly Mother” the cruel critic adds, spitefully.
The truth is I’ve always felt a Fraud. I’ve heard a lot of women feel similarly. I feel especially tricky about myself because I’m a Jack of All Trades Artist – a Sculptor by training, inclination and spirit but a performer too – also a writer, or am I more of a poet? I draw and make installations; after making a short film some years back & continuing to make filmic sketches, I intend to make at least one feature in my life. Sculpture is my language even though I no longer traditionally sculpt. Everything I put my hand to is mapped in 3d form, at least in my own bonkers head; the words I write are dynamic and invisible 3d energy-bombs that shape at your ear & explode, only alive when they quit the flat page; my performances are vigorous, animated lines and planes that move through and beyond space. (Blimey, I’m thinking to myself, no wonder I feel like a Fraud). I don’t fit into a BOX. Once, on moaning to my flatmate about my Jack of all Trades-ness, a woman who was queuing in front of me for a coffee turned to me and with striking generosity of spirit she said, “Sounds to me like you’re a Renaissance Woman.” I was gobsmacked. And chuffed! It was easier to belittle myself than to consider I might be skilled at more than one thing. I never got to thank her but I’ve never forgotten her.
After having my first child, I discovered to my horror that I wasn’t seen as a woman anymore or even an individual, certainly not an artist – only, Mother. Society defined me by Motherhood and little else, at least when my bairns were wee; it came as a huge shock even although deep down I’d known what to expect. When the blue-line had screamed ‘Pregnant’ I fixed my joyful partner’s gaze and hissed, “Don’t ever make me give up my Art.” I’d never been more serious about anything in my life. But I wasn’t really talking to him. I understood our patriarchal world too well. Motherhood should empower us; instead our sterile and soulless society degrades, diminishes and shackles us. Consequently approaching Motherhood filled me with anguish. I was in peril, in mortal danger, an existential force threatened to annihilate me. I was petrified I’d go mad. Making art keeps me Alive. Without it I couldn’t possibly survive – the life raft gone, what would I cling to? I would drown and take my innocent baby with me.
For a while I lived in the dark, choppy seas. After Babe was born, strapped about my heart or snuggled in (my nemesis) The Pram aka The Prison – I became the property of many. My mother, who’d once told me I’d never have children because I was too selfish (in reference to my being an artist I presume?) was either censorious or absent, my mother-in-law berated and undermined me, near everyone else felt they had the right to chastise and scrutinise. The interventions happened on the street, on the bus and tube, at the shops, on the beach even; places where I’d hitherto been joyously free to contemplate and cogitate became war-zones, “Your baby’s too warm!” or “Is your baby alive?’ or “Put a hat on your child! or “You’re an irresponsible and stupid Mother!” The scowls, tuts and sidelong glances were equally demoralising and draining. Not only was I in mortal combat with my own demon, I was assaulted everywhere I went by a She-Chorus of disapproving and cruel faultfinders! On one occasion an older woman attacked me with such vitriol that she stunned a whole shop into silence – to this day I’ve no idea what I’d done to offend her; as a wise hag now, I know it was always only ever her issue – point one finger at me, point three at yourself. My Inner Goddess, never fully formed alas, shrunk to a shrivelled cinder at my heart. My absent mother offered no help. My partner worked long hours and although he had the delightful and glamorous bonus of eating in Michelin starred restaurants at lunchtime, and although his career soared whilst mine evaporated (that’s hard to write) the burden of Breadwinner took its toll on him; the jealously, the fatigue, the anxiety, and the responsibility of motherhood took its toll on me. When I ventured out to parties, which I assumed would be safe, supporting spaces, I realised I was fair game there too! At my sister’s birthday do, a woman advised me that my ever-hungry son was only hungry because my breast-milk was inadequate. At two separate birthday gatherings, two different men unknown to each other and on hearing that I was writing a book asked if was I “doing a children’s one?” the implication being that from a male perspective at least (twice was surely too much of a coincidence) mothers were only capable of writing children’s books; these guys simultaneously and with ease managed to degrade both children’s literature and mothers in one fell swoop – two for one! At another party, a man who worked in publishing and who’d also assumed I was writing a children’s book, went on and on for ages about how easy it is to write children’s books and how he churned them out when required. At the same party a fellow whose wife is responsible for a huge London Art Fair, on asking me what I did (I dared to reply ‘Artist’) spat, “Was I a real artist? Did I know what it meant to be an artist? Had I suffered for my art? Really suffered? He had friends, you see, who had endured penury!” Can you imagine this man daring to say that to another man? It crushed me. WAS I AN ARTSIST? I wondered, befuddled by lack of sleep and dizzyingly out of body with my aching, leaking breasts. COULD I CLAIM TO BE AN ARTIST? The pasting got bloodier still when my old friend, a mother herself, piped in as if revelling in the attack, “You’re not an artist, Sarah! Not a visual artist! I mean what do you *do?” Suffice to say, she’s no longer my friend.
I grew isolated and resentful. Domestic chores became mind-numbingly imprisoning. Bejewelled wi’ posset and a belly that surely wasn’t mine I marvelled that the life I’d lived previous was but an imagining brim-full of theatre, cinema and art galleries; long nourishing walks about my city; wild cycles through Soho or along the canal; travel, exciting projects and exciting people; unlimited, uninterrupted stretches of meditative time. I no longer recognised myself, either in spirit or changed body. With no escape in sight, I disappeared. No one valued me as Mother. No one recognised me as Artist. I didn’t recognise myself. You’re only as visible as your last piece of work, mocked The She Critic. In spite of my deep love for my Boy, I felt few loved me back. Patronised and dismissed, I found myself drowning. I became Nothing.
As our Boy grew, I gleefully found snatched bits of time. I drew. I wrote greedily – when my son started nursery I became a writer obsessed. Sunlight shone through the dark. But when I discovered I was pregnant for a second time, and fearing I’d be unable to cope with two we’ans, I finally sought help. Near a year ago, I finished 14 years of invaluable therapy that changed my life. It was a tough ride but as I healed, my confidence grew. I performed again! Being a mother inspired my writing and my making, gifting both a profound new dimension and gravitas; without being a mother, my novel would have stuck stubbornly and 2 dimensionally to the flat page and would never have been published or made into a solo show. A host of brilliant women helped me back into work and into the world; my partner has given and gives tremendous encouragement and support too – though we still lock horns from time to time! Our kids are now 14 and 10. They’re great. It’s still a challenge; there are a few dark days here and there. I’m still frustrated by the imprisoning four walls, the cooking, the cleaning – the boredom. I ache for uninterrupted time so I can fully immerse myself in a long project. I rage at patriarchy and rail at misogyny – I discovered my inner Goddess was a fiery Feminist. My journey as a maker and a mother has been a hard one. It’s still a tough juggle. Working from home makes it tougher. Currently, I’m in a fallow field. Will I ever make again? I am A Fraud, you see – a non-artist, a some-timer, a dabbler as an ex once mocked after watching me dance at Sadler’s Wells. The truth is, being a mother taught me, inspired me, encouraged me, challenged me, allowed me to love myself and become a better human-being. Without children, I may have just destroyed myself. Motherhood gave me the kiss of life. Motherhood gave me the tools to survive. Motherhood empowered me.
Sarah is an artist, performer, writer and mother. Born in Dundee, Sarah studied sculpture at Chelsea School of Art and theatre at Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Sarah has worked extensively in theatre and has collaborated for many years with Clod Ensemble; with whom she created The Red Chair (published by Methuen) an award winning solo show.
Our spotlight this month is the mixed-media artist Blandine Martin. Martin works with materials including sand, recycled paper and timber to combine the organic with the abstract. Looking at objects and their place within the domestic sphere, Martin questions and transforms everyday objects, their assumed function and associated rituals, particularly rituals involving women. Objets sans importance explores the weight and lasting legacy of female history, and how society has objectified women.
“Blandine plays with conceptual ideas and the art of dismantling objects and their purpose along with their narrative”
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.’ 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.
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.’ 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. 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.
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. 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.’ 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.
As is evidenced by Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner Too?, the process of acknowledging and voicing forgotten (or erased) histories of the oppressed in order to engender a form of dignity is at the core of Kaersenhout’s artistic practice.