On Love, New Feminism and Power. A Conversation between Ghada Amer and Rosa Martínez at the Beginning of the Third Millennium

Rosa Martínez

Art Curator, Spain

The work of the artist Ghada Amer is expressed as a synthesis between eastern and western tradition, the fine arts and the arts and crafts. Her paintings, videos and installations represent a personal reflection on women and their situation in current society. The use of codes characteristic of abstract painting, whose tradition is clearly masculine, allows the Egyptian artist to occupy a terrain historically denied to women and integrate a feminine universe into it. Through this process of re-appropriation and hybridisation, the work becomes a new territory, with distinct meanings. Amer thus does not seek equality between men and women, but the independence of what is feminine, the voice that allows the expression of difference without answering to the tradition of masculine power.

Rosa Martínez : Nawal El Sadawi is a prominent Egyptian psychiatrist very well known as an activist in favour of the rights of Arabic women1. She is against the surgical removal of the clitoris because it deprives millions of women of the right to have a complete body and a healthy sexual life. But she says that there are other methods (psychological and educational) through which the function of the clitoris is eradicated. She points out that Sigmund Freud proposed the psychological circumcision of women when he formulated the theory that maturity and mental health in women required the clitoral orgasm to be superseded by the vaginal orgasm. In fact patriarchal tradition tries to undervalue women biologically and ideologically, which is to say politically. I would like us to start this interview speaking about your education. You were born in Egypt and you moved to France to study Visual Arts. As a child you were educated in the Islamic cultural tradition where the relegation of women to the domestic sphere is stronger than in the enlightened West. Did you have any specific difficulties because of being a female?

Ghada Amer : I always had difficulties being a female since when you are born in a society where women are relegated to the domestic sphere, you understand very quickly that you would have been better off being a man. The worse thing is it is not reversible. You have to carry your gender all your life. As a child I thought it would have been possible to change genders and that you just have to change clothes and wear a fake moustache.

I would like to point out that I come from a family where women had a fairly important role: my mother is an agricultural engineer in the Egyptian Research Centre. She has a PhD in Chemistry from France, has worked all her life and achieved great recognition in her field. Unfortunately it was my father who pushed her to be the best in her field and it wasn’t really her own desire to do so. My mother wanted to work because during the fifties it was the big fashion for middle class women to go to University, get a degree and have a job, not to help the family but to socialise. It was the men who wanted to marry an educated woman following the colonial white English model. Now men want to marry a religious housewife who wears a veil, and it is a plus if she is educated. Most of them are asked to stay at home anyway to look after the children, and are advised not to struggle in the outside world because it is too difficult. So women follow men’s desire in order to get protection and don’t think they are able to protect themselves; they are scared to face economic reality and they think they are unable to achieve a real financial and career success. This is for me the first step in New-feminism. It is not enough any more to be just economically independent to survive. It is a matter of being as rich as men with our own work. Survival is not enough anymore.

R. M. : But it is very difficult to survive being an artist, specially when you have this double peripheral condition: being a woman and coming from the “Third World”…

G. A. : I had never felt I was peripheral before I came to the centre. It is the “enlightened world” that made me feel peripheral, different, not important, lower in quality, etc…. As a child I dreamt so much of leaving for the west, I had picture books that showed coloured healthy cheeks, tons of toys and food (the supermarket image was a fairy to me). I thought I would like to go there and share this, at least see if it is really true. I thought I would bring all this back home.

I didn’t know about the culture thing! I thought the only big difference were these supermarkets and these very green landscapes. Egypt was my centre and everything I learnt there was absolutely true all over the world. Then the disillusion came… Children laughing at my centre and my values. The people I admired and wanted so much to get close to were considering me and my family as too different (to be polite). Then I started rejecting my own people and values, taking the Western ones: I thought the former were wrong and the latter right. I thought that by doing so nobody would ask me ever again: “But do you live inside a pyramid?” or “Do you ride camels instead of cars?”. Although these questions showed how ignorant these people were, they put me in their periphery each time. The West is strong and every single person from the third world has the same dream: to go there where life is better. And the strong group set its rules and way of life and of course you follow it and you have to and that is that.

The only thing is that there is just a one-way migration. It means that you come with your own culture, discover another and mix all that together. You know more because you have experienced both: your own and the other. But the centre remains where it is with its unshakeable values, making you remain forever peripheral to it. The centre wants to see the “exotic” in the periphery, the “authentic” wild, le bon sauvage (the noble savage). They want you to behave like the image they have in their mind, and when you don’t, they get annoyed and you become “inauthentic”. This means that the centre encourages the periphery to maintain a false image of itself, to stay a “Savage” to please the “Father”.

R. M. : Do you feel your own cultural tradition as a heavy burden to be liberated from? How is this burden integrated in your painting? Don’t you think that in choosing abstract expressionism as a reference you are recognising the power of the Big Western Fathers? If women don’t have a language of their own, different from the one forged by the patriarchal tradition, is the mimetic approach the only way to criticise its powers?

G. A. : Yes, I do feel my cultural tradition as a heavy burden. Sometimes I think I will never get liberated from it. It left its mark on me. And my revolt in a way was to become an artist first. An artist is not a good figure: it represents too much freedom. In my society, an artist is always as crazy, never washes, never combs his hair and behaves in a “crazy” way – crazy because it doesn’t follow the rule! Then I decided to use the ever taboo subject of sexuality (I was crazy then to talk about that) and specifically women’s sexuality, more specifically women’s masturbation.

I do recognise the power of the “Big Father” because it is what I see and live. It is real and women do not yet have (will they ever?) a language of their own. I don’t know if mimesis is the only way to criticise this power, it is the only way I have found. I don’t criticise, I am starting with an observation instead of believing that women have achieved a certain identity of their own. I am starting with un constat d’echec (the evidence of failure).

I don’t like the feminists who have imitated men and want me to believe that by doing so we are achieving equality. Women being able to vote and to be economically independent for survival does not mean that they have achieved equality. And my concern is not equality, it is independence, and then finding an identity or a voice to express this difference. I am interested in the difference, not in the equality. I don’t even know what this difference can be. Does it really exist? I just express the difficulties in finding the way.

R. M. : You have said many times that you consider yourself a “painter” even if you have done some spectacular and meaningful outdoor projects. What is the connection that you establish between your painting and your sculptures or installations?

G. A. : I am an artist first and I do love painting. I have said several times I am a painter insisting on this specific media because, often in the art world, painting has been out of fashion, replaced by installations, photography, video, multimedia whatever…. Painting has been declared dead as if everything has already been said and it should rest in peace!

I like these new media too, but they can never replace painting, they all want to do that and they won’t. In my installations and sculpture, I am just trying to explore a new media for me because it is important for my painting: it helps it develop and vice versa – the painting helps the installations and sculptures develop. I might one day explore photography and video too – why not! – but I will never replace any media by another. I think painting still has its very respectable place in contemporary art, at least for me!

R. M. : But is it only the love for painting that has led you to give priority to this medium? Is there a political position behind your choice of painting?

G. A. : The history of art has been written by men in practice and in theory. Painting has a symbolic and dominant place inside this history, and in the twentieth century it has become the major expression of masculinity, especially through abstraction. The geometric abstraction of Mondrian, Albers, Stella or the Minimal art movement reflect the geometrical organisation of the world as a paradigm of the rational qualities attributed to men. Pollock and abstract expressionism are the other side of the coin, but they are also a big metaphor of masculine energy and power.

For me to defend the choice of being a painter and to use the codes of abstract painting, as they have been defined historically, is not only an artistic challenge: its main meaning is occupying a territory that has been denied to women historically. I occupy this territory aesthetically and politically because I create materially abstract paintings, but I integrate in this male field a feminine universe: that of sewing and embroidery. By hybridising those worlds, the canvas becomes a new territory where the feminine has its own place in a field dominated by men, and from where, I hope, we won’t be taken out again. In those abstract surfaces I inscribe figures of women taken from pornographic magazines where male fantasies are represented, and this way I do a double re-appropriation.


[1] This text is composed by extracts from the interview published in Atlántica, nº 26, Las Palmas de Gran Canaria.