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The Thread of Painting: An Interview with Ghada Amer

There’s something about thread that’s as effective in reducing male assertions as Delilah’s scissors were on Samson’s hair. I think of British artist Anna Hunt who rendered iconic modernist architecture in six-by-eight inch satin-stitch embroideries, and here we’re looking at the work of Ghada Amer, who graduated in 1989 with a MFA in painting from a well-regarded school in Nice leaving with conflicted messages about the efficacy of a woman painting at all. Art history told her gestural, heroic-scale abstract expressionist works were the purview of men. Paint was theirs. So, her medium–her paint–she decided would be thread. She told Border Crossings, “I didn’t invent embroidery, but I wanted to paint with embroidery. I was speaking about women with a medium for women, and it made the speaking stronger and more present.”

The earliest pieces were simple, single line drawings–silhouettes in red thread of women doing domestic daily tasks. Ironing in La femme qui repasse, 1992, or Cinq femmes au travail, 1991, where women are shopping for groceries, caring for children, cleaning, cooking.

The subject quickly shifted; it was still women but now the imagery was derived from American soft-core porn magazines. White women alone and together, in acrylic and embroidery on canvas, the same figures often repeated in bands or clusters, stitched in thread with the tailings gathered in knots or drawn in bundles, obscuring the figures or connecting them like lines of communication, extending the colour gesture across the surface. Paintings like The Big Blue Expressionist Painting, 1999-2000, Red Drips–coulures rouges, 1999, Black Series–coulures noires, 2000, or Untitled (New Grid), 2000, their titles alone indicating the sources Amer was challenging. She said, “I had to have lots of thread so that I could drip, because the threads are my drips. That’s my Pollock.” Robert Motherwell or Barnett Newman with their dense black blocks of pigment or Sol LeWitt in the grid superimposed on the playfully erotic chorus line of women–all are conjured in these pieces. Amer identified the challenge and the gaps she noted in the history of painting and answered them …

The interview with Ghada Amer was conducted in her studio in Harlem in February 2009. Ghada Amer’s work will be exhibited in Istanbul, Cape Town and the Moscow Biennale in the fall of 2009.

Border Crossings: What was the nature of the work you were doing when you came out of art school?

Ghada Amer: I’ve always done the same work. It was about love and about women, but they were not sexual.

What gave you the permission to use subject matter that came out of porn? How did you finally make the break?

I was so frustrated that I couldn’t speak about this to my parents. I couldn’t rebel, so in some way it was my own rebellion because I knew that my not being able to speak was wrong. I finally said, “I don’t care, they may punish me, but I’m doing art.” It came to the point where I would either leave home, not talk to my parents, or get involved with a non-Muslim guy. Or, I would speak about it. For me this was more permissive than if I really did it. Maybe it wasn’t very courageous, but I couldn’t transgress in real life; I could only transgress in my painting.

De Kooning said that oil paint was invented to paint flesh. It makes me wonder why thread was invented? You change the medium and raise the question of the quest for beauty. Is your work beautiful because of its material or because of the way you treat the material?

It is very important to me that the work should be beautiful. Otherwise, why would I do art? It’s through beauty that you think. It’s like music; if it’s horrible music you don’t want to listen to it. It may be interesting but it’s not beautiful. I used serial images because it was my only way to be able to paint with thread. This in my explanation of why I had to repeat many things, like the Arabic motif. I had to have lots of thread so that I could drip, because the threads are my drips. That’s my Pollock.

How much flexibility do you have with the way you use the thread? Is it a supple enough medium for you to do what you want?

I used very thin colour because I was always afraid that if I used too much, it would move towards craft. My main goal is to make it look like paint. So if I go too much towards thread, there is too much material, and then it would be regarded as craft or women’s work …

Pick up a copy of Issue 111 to read the entire interview!

Volume 28, Number 3: Paint

This article originally appeared in Border Crossings #111, published August 2009.

Border Crossings looks at contemporary art with interest, passion and thoroughness. Subscribe to Border Crossings today for as little as $24/year.