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. 

Recommended Reading: Mushrooming Materials With ‘Other Biological Futures’

Recommended Reading: ‘Other Biological Futures’ 

The way we produce and work with materials is changing. The world of bio design dreams of artificial leather, DNA-based dyes, and zero plastic. It’s a brave new world of design-led thinking mixed with a healthy dose of scientific research. In our last issue, we explored craft’s relationship to the environment. Relating to this the essays and interviews brought together in ‘Other Biological Futures’, an open-access MIT edition of ‘Journal of Design and Science’, the relationship between material and maker is wrought even closer…

The co-editors of the journal are artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza, who explore how the foundation of design materials are evolving. A fundamental question asked is, ‘can biology do this better?’. They sketch out the ways in which biodesign isn’t just a catch-all phrase for ‘good’ sustainable practice; as they point out from mass-farming practices and industrial fermentation to cotton t-shirt production, biology and design have been used to in industrial processes for years. It’s how we approach the ethics of these innovations that will matter for the future, as the introduction puts it, the issue considers the “different kinds of colonisation in biodesign, raise ethical issues in designing living matter and, hopefully, reach beyond our networks and cultures to encourage the imagination of ‘other biological futures’”. 

Natsai Audrey Chieza’s Ted Talk on the bacteria Streptomyces coelicolor,
which makes a striking red-purple pigment

Chieza’s design practice, Faber Futures, looks at craft’s responsibility to the environment. Chieza’s background is in architectural design and material futures helped steer this visionary company, developing new ways to truly commit to sustainability. The systems and supply chains that govern the current fashion industry are some of the most polluting for the planet. The work by Faber Futures ask us to think about the source of our materials and where they come from. In 2019, Chieza was given the Index Award for developing a chemical-free, water-saving bio-fabrication system. Bringing together design thinking, technology and natural resources, the studio used this bacteria to create beautiful fabrics.

Left: Project Coelicolor: Scale, Void, Assemblages, 2017, Faber Futures x Ginkgo Bioworks. Photo by Immatters Studio
Right: Unity screenshot, work in progress from The Wilding of Mars, 2019.

Meanwhile, Daisy’s art practice focuses on the impact of the Anthropocene, which refers to the current geological age, defined as a period in which human activity is at its peak influence on the environment. Having spent over a decade researching synthetic biology and the design of living matter, her most recent work merges technology, ecology and extinction. From bringing back the scent of extinct flowers to envisioning how we might ‘wild’ the plant Mars, her imaginative leaps into future ecologies ask what humanity can do to ‘better’ the world.  

Their issue brings together thinkers from across a range of interdisciplinary backgrounds; scientists, designers, creative writers, curators, artists, bioengineers, activists, historians all share their perspectives on our current age and ways bio design might rethink our current approach to materiality, technology and ethics.

A core question in the journal, and a wider debate for those studying the Anthropocene, is if all humans have an equal impact on environment and climate disaster. For design writer Rab Messina, the new turn towards western bio designers taking fluids like blood, sweat, even vaginal tissue, from their own bodies directly relates to guilt for the environmental damage caused through colonisation. In ‘If You’re Reading This Your Too Tall’ Messina enters into a conversation with Dutch artist Arne Hendriks to explore the possibilities of humanity shrinking down to the size of a chicken. Privilege is presented as a visible advantage in height, which leads the conversation into very interesting directions. 

Concept image. Credit: Arne Hendriks and Jasper Van Den Berg

A microscopic zoom in on the edibility of insects opens up a conversation around an imagined future of factory-farming. PhD researcher Josh Evans and mushroom farmer and activist Chido Govera challenge current mass-production practices to ‘decolonise edibility’. Two Hawaiian based researchers explore what other cultural models could teach us about planetary care, led by artist Ahilapalapa Rands and microbiologist and indigenous science educator Kiana Frank.

It seems a key component of thinking through bio design is temporalities, with essays running backwards and forwards through millennia. You could read about Betul Kacar’s work as an astrobiologist, who brings back to life ancient genes and evolutionary histories, making ‘molecular time machines’ to force us to look backwards. Alongisde Kacar, afrofuturist author and filmmaker Ytasha Womack explores how fiction can imagine new futures in ‘Future Shaped by Pasts that Could have Been’. Past, present and future are presented as a multiplicity, as spatial dimensions that can be explored through the mode of the ‘time machine’. 

Ytasha Womack speaking at ‘SONIC ACTS FESTIVAL – THE NOISE OF BEING’ (2017)

Squarely in the present, a conversation between bio artist Ionat Zurr and curator/robotics expert Maholo Uchida explore how new life might be created. Viewing tissue engineering and organ fabrication as new materials, Zurr approaches these through a design perspective of the ‘semi-living’; asking questions of identity, self-hood, and humanity. Uchida’s interest in robots asks similar questions; what are the ethics of creating non-human life?

The concepts wrangled with in this journal are daunting and difficult. Choosing to explore these mainly through conversations opens up the ideas in a very human way. It’s easy to follow trains of thought, explanations are put through the test of verbal communication – even when the conversation veers into the theoretical. For those thinking about the future of materiality – the who, how and why of the basis of crafting instruments – this journal is an exciting place to start. 


READ ‘OTHER BIOLOGICAL FUTURES’ HERE.

Words: Jade French

Review: Botanical Modernisms

As Alexandra Harris notes in Romantic Moderns, modernism is more typically considered to offer allegiance ‘to the wasteland, and not the herbaceous border’, a consideration proved inadequate by the recent Botanical Modernisms symposium, held on the 17th of August 2019.[1] The midsummer’s evening event, organised by Jasmine McCrory (PhD candidate at Queen’s University Belfast) in association with the National Trust, was devoted to illuminating discussion of modernism and the garden space, and based in the perfect location: the garden at Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex, owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Seated next to Virginia’s writing lodge, across from the orchard, and overlooking the south downs, we settled down to an event full of horticultural modernisms and replete with garden puns.

Review: Botanical Modernisms

Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Helene Schjerfbeck, Self-portrait, Black Background, 1915. Oil on canvas, 45.5 x 36 cm. Herman and Elisabeth Hallonblad Collection. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art Museum; photo: Yehia Eweis

The painter Helene Schjerfbeck (1862—1946) is apparently ‘one of Finland’s best kept secrets’.[1] I must disagree: firstly, we Finns don’t really aim to keep national secrets (or, at the very least, we get very excited when anything Finnish, such as this exhibition, makes international news), and, secondly, Schjerfbeck is probably Finland’s most internationally acclaimed painter—that the curator of Helsinkian Ateneum Art Museum, Anna-Maria von Bonsdorff, can describe London as ‘the final outpost’ not yet conquered by Schjerfbeck, tells more about the British isolationist tendency than about the painter’s international reputation. However, I think there’s grounds to get excited about the fact that British audiences are discovering her only now: a clean canvas means that, since there aren’t layers of old paint to be rubbed out first, the discussion we create around Schjerfbeck can be made fresh, strong and feminist.

Review: Helene Schjerfbeck Exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts

Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking

Image of Dorrit Black's 'Music', made between 1927-1928. Colourful, abstract patterns in the background overlaid with stylised figures dancing.
Dorrit Black, Music, 1927-28. Elder Bequest Fund 1976, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide. 

With bold colours, pulsating patterns and dynamic figures, the works of the Grosvenor School of Modern Art exude the great vitality and rhythm of modern life in 1930s Britain. This little known group of artists is the subject of the current exhibition Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Taking place 90 years after the first exhibition to showcase British linocuts in London, it celebrates the innovative work made by ten artists affiliated with the Grosvenor School during its short but intense period of activity between the world wars.

The Grosvenor School of Modern Art’s contribution to British modern art has largely been forgotten and under-researched. Yet, the over 120 prints, drawings and posters on display illustrate why these artists deserve to have their moment in the spotlight. Founded in Pimlico, London in 1925 by the Scottish wood engraver Iain Macnab, the Grosvenor School of Modern Art was dedicated to the production of modern printmaking during the interwar period. At its heart was Claude Flight, the artist and teacher is credited as a champion of linocut printmaking and the force behind the school’s promotion of this modern technique as a serious art form. 

Developed in Germany in the early twentieth century, linoleum colour print (linocut) was a new art form that involved an accessible making-process and affordable materials (linoleum is a mixture of cork and linseed oil on a canvas backing that was invented in the 1860s as a cheap and easily cleaned floor surface). The democratic nature of this medium offered fresh opportunities for experimentation and expression. Flight promoted linocuts as ‘an art of the people’ since it allowed a great range of people to appreciate modern art and practice it themselves.

Students at the Grosvenor School 1930s.

The exhibition’s opening room thoughtfully introduces this unique school, displaying archival materials and prints by members of the British Avant garde such as Paul Nash and Christopher Nevinson – the latter whom Flight studied alongside at art school – to illustrate its contextual groundings and modernist approach. Displayed in dialogue on opposite walls, it is clear how Flight’s own work and that of his students were influenced by international Avant garde movements such as Vorticism, Futurism and Cubism: their use of stark contrast, harsh lines and abstracted forms to emphasize speed and mechanics when capturing the horrors of the modern world as witnessed during the First World War.

However, as evident in the following room and throughout the exhibitions, the Grosvenor School group draw upon these styles to present a more positive view of life in Britain during the interwar period. The progressive aims of the Grosvenor School artists – which included staff and students – is also seen in the subject matter their linocuts present. Gordon Samuel, the exhibitions curator, divides the works into themes across six rooms: labour and leisure, sporting life, the pastoral, London and transport. The works wonderfully capture the bustle of life in the 1920s and 1930s, turning every day scenes and relatable subjects into vibrant, captivating works of art. 

Sybil Andrews, Speedway, 1934. Photo Osborne Samuel, London/ © The Estate of Sybil Andrews.

It is the women of the Grosvenor School artists who steal the show. Outnumbering their male counterparts on display, these innovate women illustrate a full mastery of the art forum with seemingly great ease and flair. Central to the group was Sybil Andrews, an artist recruited by Macnab to be the secretary of the Grosvenor School. Her works feature in each room, but two that especially highlight her extraordinary skill were Speedway from 1934 (pictured above) and Straphangers from 1929 (pictured below). Considered to be her most successful print, Speedway depicts motorcyclists racing along the bend of the road as they make their turn around the speedway. Andrews used multiple blocks to craft her composition by building up the layers of colours to form her figures and give texture to the landscape, seen in the top left corner, as well as brilliantly utilising curved lines to illustrate the drivers great speed. Whereas in Straphangers, the curved lines of the block mimic the swaying of passengers as they hold on to the straps from above whilst riding the tube. It is almost as if one is looking through the window from another train carriage to where Andrews has paused the unique moment in which the commuters are suspended to one side as the train hurtles down its track. Erase the top hats and it could a contemporary view of the District line today.

Sybil Andrews, Straphangers, 1929. Linocut, 25.3 x 33 cm. Private Collection.

Inspired by Flight’s teaching and books on linocuts that were printed globally, international students came to study at the Grosvenor School. A majority of these students were middle class women traveling throughout Europe studying art, although the wall labels give no distinct explanation for this particular trend. Three Australian artists – Dorrit Black, Eveline Syme and Ethel Spowers – and Lill Tschudi, the Swiss student who first came to Grosvenor at the age of 17, feature prominently in the show and exhibit their great command of linocuts. For example, Dorrit Black’s Dance from 1927-28 (pictured at top) is inspired by a night out at a jazz evening in London. Black translates the energy and joy of jazz music through her use of bold colours segmented by black lines across the flat surface, resembling stained glass. With no differentiation between the floor and ceiling, her figures dance across the page seemingly with the rhythm flowing through their limbs, one can almost hear the hiss and tap of the drums with the crooning of a saxophone.

Cutting%20Edge%20DPG%20Press%20images/Lill%20Tschudi%20-%20Gymnastic%20Exercises.jpg
Lill Tschudi, Gymnastic Exercises, 1931. Photo Bonhams/ © The Estate of Lill Tschudi, courtesy of Mary Ryan Gallery New York. 

The work of female artists within the Grosvenor School group show the full range of possibilities and potential of linocuts by taking everyday subjects and turning them into masterpieces of modern art. Their innovative use of colour, form and composition present a positive and celebratory view of daily life in Britain in the 1930s.

The exhibition concludes with a large display of the posters Andrews and Cyril Power – an artist and Grosvenor teacher of architecture – created together under the name ‘Andrews-Power’ for the London Underground, highlighting the mass appeal of the Grosvenor style at the time. It further emphasises how peculiar that these artists have remained largely unknown for so long given the high number of women artists, the group’s progressive aims and success in advertising. It is rare to come across a modern art group and more generally art school from this time that involved many women, and the lack of information specifically acknowledging this was clearly lacking. What were the motivations of international and middle class women being drawn to the Grosvenor School to pursue linocut printmaking as their chosen craft?

Regardless, it was refreshing to see modern women artists prominently featured in both the group’s activities and the exhibition at Dulwich Picture Gallery. The work of Andrews, Tschudi, Black and their fellow female artists demonstrate the innovative ways in which they utilised linocuts to craft unique yet accessible and exciting reflections of work, play and modern life around them in abstracted form. Their images seem so familiar and simultaneously completely new. Their work and their stories illustrate why this exhibition on the Grosvenor School of Modern Art is relevant and important to people, and especially artists, today. Hopefully, as this thoughtful and elegant exhibition at Dulwich Gallery successfully argues, people are inspired further research and delve into the work of the cutting edge women and their contributions to modern art and design in Britain and beyond.


Suzanna Petot is a curator and writer based in London.

Cutting Edge: Modern British Printmaking is at Dulwich Picture Gallery, open until 8 September 2019 (Book tickets here). All images courtesy Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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/

“Who’s ready for Becky’s Time!”: How Lee Minora’s ‘White Feminist’ Crafts and Deconstructs Identity

Lee Minora. © Kate Raines. Courtesy of Wellcome Collection.

Middle fingers up and pink pussy-hat on – Becky Harlowe (Lee Minora) makes her entrance into the room. She stands tall and smiles with a wide grin as she coos “Don’t be afraid, I mean well…” like a horror movie villain who has just broken into your house. Sporting a perfectly styled blonde wig, hot pink lipstick and three-inch high heels, she tells us to sit back, relax and “watch her make progress”.

Lee Minora is an American theatre-maker, solo-performer, comedian and commentator who “dissects red hot political and feminist issues with scalpel sharp humour and stealthy smarts.”[1] Presented as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in April 2019, Minora’s incredibly witty and uncomfortable show White Feminist does exactly that. First developed during Minora’s residency at the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia, PA, the show has also toured to San Francisco’s Fury Factory and the Edinburgh Fringe. It is no wonder, then, why Minora was asked to bring the show for its London debut as part of a festival that sought to showcase some of the most exciting voices looking at how the body is in dialogue with a world in pain, societal injustice and systems of oppression

Through her character Becky Harlowe, a well-intentioned but vain talk-show host, Minora beautifully crafts and embodies the quintessential “white-feminist”. To be brief, white feminism is the label given to feminist efforts and actions that uplift white women but that exclude and fail to address issues faced by minority groups, especially women of colour and LGBTQ+ women.[2] Over the course of the hour-long show, Minora simultaneously dissects this identity before our eyes, using audience participation to draw awareness to the problematic behaviours of white feminists. As Harlowe demands us to repeat with her upon returning to the stage, “we are all Beckys today.”

Becky Harlowe’s persona draws direct characteristics from former American daytime talk-show hosts Megyn Kelly and Kathie Lee Gifford, such as her sleek blonde hairdo, constant references to her family and white wine drinking habit. The entire talk-show setting and “live audience” environment was crafty way to hold this critique of mainstream feminism and capitalist liberalism. Minora skilfully incorporates elements of the female talk-show to construct Becky’s character and identity. The “Becky’s Time” set has all she needs: a high table for where she can comment on the important topics, flowers to keep it feminine, a low side table for those more intimate side-segment moments, and a big “B” to remind us all who is the star of the show.  

Throughout the performance Becky speaks in slogans, pulling out all the right words and phrases from the stereotypical, liberal non-intersectional feminist playbook, such as promising that she is always “100% real” on her show and referring to the audience as her fellow “citizen heroes”. She makes an apology for promoting a non-inclusive makeup brand and is devastated to find out viewers did not find it convincing. Becky asks us “Who participated in a march? Who signed an online petition? Who is tired of Brexit?”. No matter our answer, Minora’s skilfully improvised remarks ensures our eyes, and judgement, remain on Becky. Becky took up space at the Women’s March, Becky too suffers from outrage fatigue. Through her performance, she holds up a mirror to contemporary activism and its shortcomings, from the trendiness of protesting and ubiquitous well-meaning online acts to how racism and sexism fall on both sides of the aisle.

These crafted segments of the show continue to weave together the deplorable yet seemingly well-meaning image of Becky in front of us. Does Becky really feel this way or is she a feminist only when convenient?

Lee Minora in White Feminist © John C Hawthorne. Courtesy of Lee Minora.

Then we begin to see something of the ‘real’ Becky behind her TV persona.  She moves to a segment for reading the live twitter feed and we begin to see her distress at the escalating language used by the commenters, starting with honest criticisms tagged with #boycottbecky to increasingly startling remarks promoting violence against women. This prompts Becky into the finest part of her character’s development where we see her inevitably start to break down over her confusion about what she has done wrong – “What do I do? I’m sorry white women voted for Trump! I’m sorry we stole yoga, but I don’t know how to give it back!

We are all laughing at Becky: her narcissism, her ignorance and then ­– silence. In a true moment of weakness Becky discloses her own #metoo trauma. Minora uses this moment to gather our sympathy for Becky and demonstrate her character as both the oppressor and oppressed.

It works brilliantly. We start to feel sorry for Becky, for the traumatic experience she has gone through. Have we been to too harsh in our judgement of Becky? Perhaps this confession is the beginning of her journey towards change and real intersectional feminism. But then Becky goes back to reading the live twitter feed with a returning smile from all the tweeting supporters who commend her bravery and pledge their allegiance to “#Becky’sArmy”. Wearing her pink pussy hat like a crown, Becky announces that she is proud to lead the “#metoo” movement and stands defiantly towards the camera as if ready to “save” the world. That moment of potential enlightenment for Becky is gone.

Minora presents a wonderfully crafted and very convincing embodiment of the problematic and harmful “white feminist.” Her excellent in-character improvisation from audience interaction makes it clear that each performance is its own tailored experience creates a sense of intimacy within the audience and comfortability with Minora, especially as she covers some pretty uncomfortable topics. Minora’s success in White Feminist comes from her ability to both present and dissect a completely believable and recognizable character, who embodies the toxic ignorance inherent in white feminism.

However, there is a danger the show is merely preaching to the choir: a performance with a title such as this is likely to attract those already conscious of the limpness of white feminism. Another criticism is the lack of women of colour directly in the show, other perspectives to this weighty topic. That is something I had wished there was more of, and who knows – perhaps in the future “Becky’s Time” will have some well-needed guests to the conversation about race, gender and privilege.

The importance of this performance is how it acts a reminder that no matter how liberal or feminist or “woke” you think you are – especially white women – there needs to be a constant awareness and rechecking of our privilege: where can we improve and how can we be better allies to our fellow feminists of all backgrounds.

White Feminist was as part of The Sick of Fringe: Care and Destruction three-day festival at the Wellcome Collection in London on 6 -7 April 2019. For more information about the performance and Lee Minora, click here.

Words: Suzanna Petot, a freelance curator and writer based in London.


[1] “Lee Minora: White Feminist – The Sick of the Fringe London 2019”. The Sick of the Fringe.com. Accessed 15 April 2019. http://thesickofthefringe.com/london2019/lee-minora

[2] “White Feminism” Definition. Dictionary.com. Accessed 13 May 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/e/gender-sexuality/white-feminism/


Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form

Geta Bratescu – The Line, 2014 from Stefan Sava on Vimeo.

At the 2017 Venice Biennale’s Romanian Pavilion, Geta Brătescu’s exhibition ‘Apparitions’ cemented her status as a rising star on the international art scene. Aged ninety-one, Brâtescu was something of an unusual art world darling, yet she was well-known in her native Romania for a rich, multidisciplinary body of work that she would develop up until her death in September 2018.  Subsequent exhibitions of her late work have emphasised the surprising ways that Brătescu continued to add depth to her innovative oeuvre. The drawings and collage pieces on display at Hauser and Wirth London’s exhibition The Power of the Line offer a vibrant display of bright shapes, jazzy geometric patterns, and lines that romp across the paper making manifest the physical ‘gestures of the [artist’s] body’. Her collages recall the energy of Matisse’s late cut-outs and the colourful verve of Miro; yet they express a kinetic and performative zest that is uniquely Brătescu’s and that threads, in various guises, throughout her seven-decade-long career.  

Geta Brătescu Courtesy the artist, Ivan Gallery, Bucharest and Hauser & Wirth

 ‘Armstrong’, the first piece that greets visitors to Hauser and Wirth’s The Power of the Line, is a joyous introduction to Brătescu’s musical, mercurial form. A collaged photograph of musician Louis Armstrong is followed by a concertina sequence of colour and pattern that bursts from his trumpet. Vibrant yellow and red tones evoke an ecstatic explosion of music; jagged, rhythmic lines of thick crayon dance through each section, occasionally merging to form flailing Keith Haring-esque figures. Brătescu drew ‘Armstrong’ with her eyes closed, channelling her own inner visions in a manner that recalls Surrealist automatic drawing. This method demonstrates Brătescu’s absolute faith in the line’s expressive physicality; like singing and dancing, the act of drawing lines on the page communicates the rhythms of the physical world around us. She worked across many mediums, but the line remained a fundamental part of her artistic vision and practice:

“The spider’s thread borne away on the wind is a flying line. Drawing owes a huge amount to the energy with which the hand traces lines and the character of this energy is determined by the character, the mood, the culture, the vision of the artist. In fact, it is a mysterious phenomenon. To trace a line, a simple line, with the feeling and awareness that you are producing expression; that line is necessary to you beyond reason.”

Although her work has a clear relationship with non-objective abstract art, Brătescu creates an embodied art that is in dialogue with the material, ephemeral everyday world. Works assembled from discarded objects, such as crumpled paper, coffee sticks, matchboxes, netting, nod to Kurt Schwitters; in her journal, Brătescu described Schwitters’ Merz as the epitome of the conflict ‘between the ideal of the gesture and the perishability of the matter caught up in the gesture’ – an impression that gains a particular resonance when viewing pieces created by a housebound artist at the end of her life. Like Brătescu’s earlier performance art and work with fragile textiles, the drawings and collages on display at Hauser and Wirth express a sense of the finite. Many bear the traces of the artist’s labour: faded lines where the marker pen begins to fail, patches of glue, the trace of pencil marks. This also speaks of the spontaneity of Brătescu’s approach, which is evident in Gestul, desunul (‘The gesture, the drawing’), a wonderfully engaging film of Brătescu working and reflecting on her process with fellow Romanian artist Stefan Sava. She is shown seated at her desk, utterly absorbed by the paper she works on; her hands shake and, at times, struggle with the pen. As she inks in blocks of colour, she jokingly acknowledges the painstaking effort, asking first Sava and then the pen in her hand if they ‘have the patience’ for her process. This hands-on, slow method is essential for an artist who understood drawing as a gesture of the body; a physical act, like a dance, through which she explored and captured the world around her. Brătescu’s reading of Proust’s A La Recherche du Temps Perdu offers an insight into her own perspective: she describes Proust’s world as one of ‘absolute tactility…full of forms and colors, not so much seen as traversed’, words that could easily be applied to her own creations.


Geta Brătescu, Medea’s 10 Hypostases, 1980, Collection of Adam & Mariana Clayton, London. Photo: Stefan Sava

Brătescu shied away from politics: she dismissed feminism as ‘a uniform’, played down the experience of life under Romania’s repressive communist regime, and declared her studio to be an ‘apolitical’ space. Yet, the centrality of the body throughout her oeuvre hints at a certain political intent. For a series of works inspired by Medea (the Medeic Forms of the late 1970s), Brătescu used her mother’s old clothes and created a method she called ‘drawing on textile with sewing machine’. These unsettling abstract textile works suggest the violence and conflicted desires of womanhood, as well as the stifling strictures society places on them. Aesop, another mythological figure, featured prominently in Brătescu’s work as a joker; her fondness for him and for the more modern fool Charlie Chaplin suggests a similarly disruptive design behind her ludic lines. In the late drawings, they impishly morph into smiling faces and shapes that evoke breasts, ova, and sperm, evoking a defiant joi de vivre that mocks autocrats and old age alike. Following Brătescu’s lines lead us into a space both playful and profound, where our expectations of avant-garde culture, age, and gender are upended and a joyous chaos of form reigns.

Geta Brătescu: The Power of the Line was on display at Hauser and Wirth London, 27 Feb – 27 Apr 2019.

Words: Lottie Whalen