Thursday 10 May 2012

Decoding art... politics of feminist-artist, Amer

By Tajudeen Sowole
  (First published in August 2010)
In art historian, Chika Okeke-Agulu’s overview of New York, U.S.-based Egyptian artist, Ghada Amer’s work, an artist who has intrinsic phobia for the conservative Arab / Islamic culture of feminine-sensitivity is stripped.
From the three thousand four hundred and fourteen words-lecture held at the Centre for Contemporary Art (CCA), Lagos, Okeke-Agulu’s subconscious sympathy for Amer’s distress in situating modern Egyptian woman against an overwhelming culture of veiling hung in the air of the moderately attended event.  

Amer’s subject focused the Egypt of the 1980s when the country’s Muslim Brotherhood gained popularity.
 Rightly tagged Art and Politics of Gbada Amer, the lecture, which also touched issue of global concern such as terrorism – from Amer’s perspective – raised question over whether Arabs do accept the subject in any context whatsoever.
  Okeke-Agulu is a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and Assistant Professor of Art History in the Department of Art and Archaeology, and Center for African American Studies, Princeton University, New Jersey, U.S.
 Instructively, Amer, like poets and artists who have been so distressed and angered by this culture of dress code for females, has succeeded in winning critics / commentators such as Chika-Agulu that her work is aimed at confronting some imaginary confinement of the softer gender, thus “emancipation” for womanhood. 

He argued that Amer’s art “testifies, by means of what I want to call visual seduction, to her critical assertion of the rights of women in the context of the politics of radical Islam, particularly in Egypt.”
  Amer is an artist known for expressive female sexuality using erotic motifs in mostly abstracted concepts. Veiling, as a subject for Amer, appeared symbolic and central to the artist’s resentment of a wider culture perceived as impeding emancipation of woman. Every culture, across the world, has its share of this real or imagined ceiling placed on woman.
   If the main purpose of agitation for feminine expression is about freedom, the resilience of Islamic culture of feminine sensitivity, not “containment,” keeps proving that there is nothing to fear. And when it comes to subjectivity and introspection, there are deposits in Amer, who as art student in Paris, already concluded that veil was “a drawback.” Amer left Egypt with her parents at 11 for France and perhaps was visiting home occasionally. 

 Okeke-Agulu opened the lecture by revisiting the artist’s return to Cairo in 1988, at 25, when she noticed that the 1980s "was a big drawback for the right of women in Egypt. Each summer I was there, I witnessed the rising number of veiled women. Women in the street, then my relatives, my aunts, mother, cousins, friends, every woman I know was choosing to return to the traditional veil. It was very upsetting."
Embroidery by Ghada Amer
  In 1991, her anger found a medium to explode in the exhibition Cinq Femmes aux Travailles, (Five Women at Work), one of the works, which Okeke-Agulu referred to during the lecture.
 And as she turned out to be a spokesperson armed with an “embroidery needle” in a drowning voice about modern Egyptian woman, desperation set in: she advanced into porn-art. This much was noticed in her work, Red Diagonales, (Acrylic, embroidery and gel medium on canvas 72 x 72 in.), 2000, the lecturer noted. He explained that for moving from depiction of domestic middle-class social elite to “naked or semi-naked women, copied from porn magazines, engaged in auto-erotic or lesbian sexual acts,” the show defined her career.
 However, the artist has plunged her art into a complex kind, perhaps, dragging the revered veil institution along, so suggested the lecturer. He argued that, “by populating her canvases with (un) veiled women, Amer seems to suggest that both pornography and veiling participate in scopophilia and sexualization of the female body.”
  From shades of opinions, Agulu navigated through the veiling culture and noted that quite a list of scholars from the Islamic world have attempted to probe the science of gazing, which is a crucial factor within the context of feminine sensitivity of Islam.
  If Amar’s ultimate goal was to score some political point or cause upheaval with her art, she appeared to have nose-dived; the Egyptian press seemed indifference. Chika-Agulu noted that her work, particularly of the “porn-based canvases” received “positive reception in Cairo by liberal intellectual elite, against the tendency on the part of the conservative Arabic language press to either ignore it or criticize Amer’s politics.”
  But she was not done with her search for attention or stirring controversy back home, and by extension, the Arab world: terrorists’ destruction of the World Trade Centre (WTC) towers, New York, U.S., in 2001 provided another opportunity. The lecturer revisited the artist’s 2005 installation, Reign of Terror, “in which visitors to a Museum cafeteria were served with paper plates, cups, table mats and serviettes on which she announced the absence of the word ‘terrorism’ in Arab dictionaries.”
  Perhaps, the “sudden absence” of the word from the lexicons of the people may not have anything to do with the global concern for terrorism. Reason: over the ages, words change or even disappear from languages, hence colloquial or archaic identification of some words. In fact some English words only exist in the archives or biblical expression and no longer in dictionaries; disappearance of terrorism in Arabic language, probably, is just another victim of the dynamics of languages over the centuries.
  Feminist art of Amer and others who claim to extol the virtue of womanhood on the pedestal of “porn-based canvases” could make idealists ask: when does the virtue of womanhood extolled? For some artists, answer to this question is found regularly in exploitative images that either harasses the opposite sex or offer illusory pleasure – depending on the mental state of the viewers.

Indeed, the beauty of art is to stir shades of social, political, even religious discourse. But every society has to weigh the cost within the context of its peculiar environment and not through the mirror of other people’s culture.   

However, for the Nigerian art landscape, it is still scratching the surface when it comes to female artists who want to think out of the box, so suggested the response of director of CCA, Bisi Silva, shortly after Okeke-Agulu concluded his presentation. Silva hoped to see Nigerian female artists taking up the “challenge of presenting womanhood in other context than the stereotype.” In fact she cited the example of a South African artist, Zanele Muholi whose lesbian photography images in the show, Like A Virgin blurred the line between art and pornography. Silva argued that Muholi’s work “is more challenging, provocative.”

As an art scholar, Okeke-Agulu had in 2007, served as the Robert Sterling Clark Visiting Professor, Williams College; co-organized Seven Stories About Modern Art in Africa (Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, 1995);


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