ArteEast: Could you please tell us a bit about your work and what you’ve been working on for the past few years?
Ghada Amer: I’ve been working on ceramics in particular, but I work on several things at the same time. I am working on a new body of painting, which is the first time I have done this, portraits of women I know. These portraits are done with feminist quotes. I am also starting a new series of sculptures in bronze. I haven’t seen the results yet, but it has been a long process, which is a bit more experimental. I tend to like to focus on many things at the same time, not just one body of work.
AE: Can you tell us a bit about what your quarantine was like – was it difficult to produce your work with such materials?
GA: Actually, the quarantine helped me develop this series of paintings. I have been sketching them since 2013 – seven years now . I never had time to do them, quarantine was the perfect time to produce them. I was supposed to go back to ceramics and postpone again this new body of work, but the quarantine happened so I could not go to Mexico, where I produce my ceramics. It was a long time due for me, so it was great.
AE: How do you choose the women that you have included in this new body of work?
GA: I like their faces. They are portraits of people I know – my sister, my friends, my niece, myself. I have only done five so far, I am now starting a sixth work.
AE: What’s really great about your work is that it’s very provocative, and there’s discussion about the feminine gaze and the body. How do you think about your work in a time of post-Me Too movement? And in a time where there are a lot of questions about the gaze, how men look at women, and how women look at women? Did it make you think of the work you’ve done, the motivations, any sort of changes and ideas? Has anything evolved?
GA: I was happy that there was a little bit of the Me Too movement. I say a little, because I don’t agree with the whole discussion around Me Too, because I think politically it tends to be aggressive and ill-received by men in general. I don’t see why the women didn’t speak up when they should have spoken up – I don’t know why they wasted so much time. Of course, the society and etc., but I don’t think it’s a good excuse. I myself, when I was harassed, especially when I was a teenager in Cairo, I actually fought with men in the streets with my fist! I took a stone and threw it on a guy’s face and my sister slammed his face. I think it’s better to do it when you’re in the moment. For me, the problem with the Me Too movement is that they waited fifteen or twenty years to come out and say these things, so I have a problem with that, definitely. I was doing this on my own before the Me Too movement, my work didn’t change because of this.
AE: Regarding this constant focus on the theme of women, do you think you might ever not work on women?
GA: Maybe, I don’t know. In my ceramics, I worked on a series of abstract works which I developed in Mexico. My work is more about painting than it is about women. Of course, it’s about painting in the shoes of a woman, who hasn’t been given the same rights as men. When I studied painting in France in 1986, I wasn’t allowed to attend painting class because I am a woman. This is why I do what I do. It’s not because I’m Egyptian, no, it’s because I was told, “You are a woman and you have to wait outside, the men will learn and the boys will teach you,” and I was very upset. I never thought that painting could be defined by gender, I never even realized that in the history of art there are no women. I went to the library and I asked to see works by women, and the woman at the library told me they don’t have anything. I looked at the history of art that I studied, looking like mad and spending most of my time during this semester looking at art history books where I wanted to find women painters, all I could find were men. So I decided that art is a male language that I need to address, and this is how I developed. It has always been interpreted as though I am working on sexuality and so on. And yes, maybe I am, but my main focus is painting. It’s a very important aspect of my work. I wanted to paint with embroidery. I was like, “Ok, if painting is male, I’m going to embroider with my painting so I can tell this story each time I make a painting.”
AE: So when did you then move into ceramics and the larger sculptures that you created?
GA: The big sculptures were in 2010. You know that I am also working on a project in the Channel Gardens, in Rockefeller Center. I started these gardens in 1997, this is not new for me, but people were not interested or sensitive enough at the time to the nature of these works. I have always been interested in sculpture, because I think of my paintings as 3-D works, in a way. Then I did 3-D works, but with embroidery, and then I became interested in sculpture. Actually,I didn’t get interested in sculpture, I fell into sculpture. I was at the opening of Mathaf and Sheikh Hassan, to whom I owe a lot, asked me “Why don’t you do something totally experimental? Something you’ve been wanting to do for a while. I’ll give you money to develop it, and it doesn’t matter if you don’t succeed.” It was really the definition of a patron and art lover. So I said okay, and I started to do my 100 Words of Love, which is actually made of resin. And then a gallerist from South Korea saw the work, and said, “Oh I love these, why don’t you do these in bronze because I cannot sell resin.” I was not trained in sculpture, but she said she and the gallery would help me. So I fell into this, and met these people at this time who helped me develop this, by giving me the means, the money, and the confidence to do it. I am interrested in the combination of painting and sculpture, not just monochromatic sculpture. I developed a technique with the Director of Greenwich House Pottery, Adam Welch, so that I could paint and I didn’t have to embroider, and I was very happy that I could paint with the clay, with a medium that’s not proper painting in a way. And of course, this was a discovery. So everything at this moment was a discovery, which is another reason I developed this body of just abstract pieces.
AE: Tell us about the Rockefeller Center garden piece [titled Women’s Qualities].
GA: I can tell you the difference between when I did this piece in Korea in 2000 and now, this was very interesting. Not only because of the culture and time, but as well because of the Me Too movement. In 2000, before the Me Too movement and in Korea, I asked people there to tell me the quality of women and I was working on seven lots, not fourteen like at Rockefeller Center. I asked women and men to give me seven women’s qualities, and I would reproduce the ones that were recurrent. The most common ones in Korea at the time were: “submissive,” “sexy,” “long-lashed,” “presenting food well.” Nobody wrote “intelligent,” I cheated and I wrote “intelligent.” Twenty years later, in New York, I had a problem because of Covid, so I couldn’t interview people in person and I wanted to go around Rockefeller and interview people, which is what I would have done. So what I did was create three separate categories: one, I asked Marianne Boesky Gallery who represents me in America to send an email to her friends, collectors, and artists and give me thirteen women’s qualities, but they had to send answers to me individually. So then, I was renovating my studio in New York, and I asked the Mexican workers to tell me what they think about women’s qualities, and of course I also asked Egyptians who I was Skyping with everyday: my mom, my sisters, my cousins, I would interview them. I thought I could not just ask white people in New York.
AE: What did they end up saying was the quality of women? What’s the consensus?
GA: “Resilient,” “strong,” “beautiful,” and the Egyptians said: “good cook!” The result surprised me because they were describing a wonder woman that does not exist!
AE: What are you looking forward to over the next few months and after the Covid-19 pandemic hopefully subsides?
GA: Oh, after Covid, I’m looking to see people and to party, to go to openings and go to museums. I am looking to go to Cairo in November, Covid or no Covid, I need to see my mom. We have to work, we lost so much time and money, we cannot afford to live like this anymore. If I’m able, I will go to Berlin in November, because I have a show, and then maybe to Spain because I also have a show there. I want to stay for a while in Cairo, I want to visit some of the beautiful shops and visit all the craftsmen. One of my ideas — you know how in Egypt we have many Egyptian pharaonic breads — one of these breads is the bread that the Jewish people took to the dessert when they left Egypt, it’s the bread that doesn’t rise, it’s very very thin, it’s crispy, each village has its own recipe. In my mom’s village, there’s a woman who still makes it. So I want to go and film it and learn a little bit, it’s very important because it is a dying tradition, and it’s something I want to do.