Book Review: handiwork’s Crafting of the New Global Elegy
Amy E. Elkins reviews handiwork by Sara Baume… Book Review: handiwork’s Crafting of the New Global Elegy
‘Always in the Middle’: Unpicking the Fabric of Domesticity with Mary Sibande
Explore Sibande’s alter-ego, the domestic servant Sophie Ntombikayise, who emanates and is entangled by sprawling, supernatural roots of purple fabric…… ‘Always in the Middle’: Unpicking the Fabric of Domesticity with Mary Sibande
Review: Live Form by Jenni Sorkin
In the opening of Live Form: Women, Ceramics, and Community, Jenni Sorkin leads with a new take on this tussle between two forms to argue that it was ‘modern craft and not modern art that spearheaded nonhierarchical and participatory experiences’. A sentiment we at Decorating Dissidence can get behind.… Review: Live Form by Jenni Sorkin
Exhibition Review: ‘Pioneers – William Morris & the Bauhaus’
The William Morris Gallery’s compact but eye-opening exhibitions in their temporary gallery space never disappoint – and Pioneers: William Morris and the Bauhaus is no exception.… Exhibition Review: ‘Pioneers – William Morris & the Bauhaus’
Navigating Cultural Liminality: Private Rooms by Ghada Amer
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.
Words by Alis Shea
 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].
 Laura Auricchio, ‘Works in Translation: Ghada Amer’s Hybrid Pleasures’, Art Journal (2001), p. 27.
 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.
 Fereshteh Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, Anthropology and Aesthetics (2003), p. 177.
 Daftari, ‘Beyond Islamic Roots: Beyond Modernism’, p. 177.
Recommended Reading: Mushrooming Materials With ‘Other Biological Futures’
We explore the relationship between material and maker in ‘Other Biological Futures’ edited by artist Dr. Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg and designer Natsai Audrey Chieza…… Recommended Reading: Mushrooming Materials With ‘Other Biological Futures’
Event Review: Botanical Modernisms
A day devoted to illuminating discussion of modernism and the garden space, based in the perfect location: the garden at Monk’s House in Rodmell, East Sussex, owned by Virginia and Leonard Woolf.… Event Review: Botanical Modernisms
Exhibition Review: Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts
There’s grounds to get excited about the fact that British audiences are discovering Schjerfbeck 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…… Exhibition Review: Helene Schjerfbeck at the Royal Academy of Arts
Exhibition Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking
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.… Exhibition Review: The Cutting Edge Women of British Modern Printmaking
Exhibition Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning
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.… Exhibition Review: Breaking Down Doors with Dorothea Tanning
“Who’s ready for Becky’s Time!”: How Lee Minora’s ‘White Feminist’ Crafts and Deconstructs Identity
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.” 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. 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?
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.
 “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
 “White Feminism” Definition. Dictionary.com. Accessed 13 May 2019. https://www.dictionary.com/e/gender-sexuality/white-feminism/
Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form
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.… Geta Brătescu: The Dance of Form