Imagine entering into an art exhibition and being surrounded by canvases featuring a large variety of painted pornographic images of naked females. Imagine a painting/embroidery depicting one or many women masturbating and other images of oral sex occurring between 2 women. Finally, imagine Snow white and/or Cinderella posing in a frame surrounded with such provocatively nude women. Strange? Disturbing? Interesting? Sexy? Every person may react differently to Ghada Amer’s 2012 art exhibition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal. Our gender, age, sexual orientation, religion & many more aspects of our identities can play a role in influencing our perceptions, emotions and attitudes towards Amer’s recent artwork!
How does this relate to an anthropology of consumption marketing course? As discussed in class, consuming is about “using” what others have produced. Applied in this context, if Ghada Amer is the producer of art, then we are the consumers of it. We not only consume her artistic creation but also interpret it. And since each and every single one of us is different, so are our interpretations. This leads to various possibilities in seeing and understanding the meaning behind what we consume of it. The following analysis will emphasize particularly on her sexual artwork, which combines paintings with her artisanal touch of embroidery. This reflection aims to provide the reader with possible ways of interpreting the message, whether intentional or not, that she may be sending to her public, whether they are consciously aware of it or not.
Her technique: Ghada Amer’ specialty consists of embroidery & painting blended together. What distinguishes her painting form others is the thread sewed on the painting itself, adding color to the image, creating various reliefs and also giving it a subliminal or illusory touch. But does her sewing/embroidery technique have a transcending meaning? What could possibly be symbolized with the merge of these 2 artistic techniques? Throughout history, whereas sewing has primarily been a female activity/work, the field of painting has been dominated by males such as renowned painters Leonardo daVinci, Monet & Picasso. The combination of her techniques may be perceived as bringing together, in one image, males and females. This approach may be a symbolic representation of gender equality in the context of art and of life in general.
Pleasure and love? From Cinderella, to beauty, to snowhite, many of Amer’s art include images of these Walt Disney’s fairytale princesses. But it’s not all! What makes those princesses unique is the fact that naked and erotic female bodies surround them. In fact, most of the frames in Ghada Amer’s exhibition present the consumer to an enormous number of relatively similar looking, nude women posing or performing a sexual act. While some are masturbating, other women are being sexually pleased by other women through oral sex. This said, how is this female artist communicating her “pleasure and love” exhibition’s theme?
Happily ever after? Most girls dream or fantasize about falling in love with a charming prince and living happily ever after. Does this dream or fantasy really exist or is it surreal? Amer chose to use fairytales as symbols of love. On one side, if an idealistic person believes that such love exists, then he or she may interpret it as a wonderful magical representation. On the other side, in reality, such love stories exist only in Walt Disney’s fantasy world or in a girl’s dreamy mind. Depending on one’s perceptions and definitions of love, the message that this artist is sending can largely vary. My personal opinion? Since fairytales obviously don’t exist, and since she is representing love with princesses in fairy tales, then this means that love is just a dream and that it does not exist!
As previously mentioned, she does not show Disney’s princesses alone. Rather, she surrounds them by few or many nude female bodies, which significantly differentiates her work from any other producer of art. Before proceeding with this innocent and pornographic content combination, let’s explore her particular “female sexuality universe”.
Pleased ever after? Interestingly, the source of pleasure that she is conveying is sexual pleasure. Many of her canvases illustrate female bodies, naked or almost naked, positioned in a very erotic way. In other of her work, ladies have one of their hands or the lips of another woman on their private body parts. Some are seen as using a sex object to satisfy their sexual needs and desires. Her theme of pleasure truly expresses itself in their facial expressions, with most having their mouth partially opened, and if they have their eyes opened, we can read satisfaction through their gaze. Can one say that pleasure in the female world is only limited to self-pleasure and lesbian acts? Interestingly, not one man is to be found in her art exhibition. Surprising or not surprising? Why did she exclude any sexual activity involving men and women together? Wouldn’t that also fit with the concept of pleasure? A new door of possible interpretation opens.
As written in the Magazine of the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal, “some of her iconographic references reveal women’s bodies as they are displayed for a heterosexual male audience”. From a female producer to male consumers? Reading this sentence has caused my train of thoughts and questions to shift. Ghada Amer’s exhibition, intended to a masculine public, carries on other powerful meanings. Heterosexual men enjoy and can be aroused while looking at seductive and sexually active women. Taking this to another more implicitly complex level, could her message be that we, women, seek pleasure and can satisfy ourselves without the presence of men? Could we, as consumers, interpret her work as conveying the independence of women from men and reinforce gender equality as previously discussed? Is it a trace of feminism?
After closely observing her phenomenal images, it became clearer to me that sexual pleasure is a context through which she seeks to spread the empowerment and rights of women. Experimenting one’s sexuality should not be gender specific. In many cultures, such subject is taboo. While many religions prohibit sexual freedom, others perceive it as something mundane in western popular culture. Exposing a masculine population to such provocative images can play multiple roles. After reading that Ghada Amer was raised in an Egyptian Muslim family, I wonder if such representation of pleasure are not her repressed feelings transcended via imagery. Through this pornographic context she is communicating the desire for females to escape from culture and religion “boundaries” and further explore, listen and fall in love with their bodies. Shouldn’t every woman love her body and express or satisfy herself free from prejudice, free from discrimination and free from the sinful label, which can be attached to it? If pleasure means peace with self, then I personally believe that her “pleasure and love” theme can be to some extent synonymous to “peace and love”!
Innocence and sins? So far, the analysis has attempted to understand pleasure and love separately. Drawing back to a topic briefly introduced earlier, while pleasure (female bodies) appeared on canvas of their own, princesses only appeared in the foreground of a not easily noticeable background filled with pornographic content. Raising another question, does love’s symbolic message meaning change when “pleasure and love” are combined? I must admit that I was bewildered when I 1st saw this painting/embroidery. Disney and porn? Innocence and sins? Dreams and reality? Pleasure and love? Is the position of the naked bodies drawn near the heart or mind of the princesses used to reflect that every woman, even in fairy tales, have a dirty and sexual side of them? If yes, then this image can be interpreted as the oppression versus expression of sexual desires! Amer is trying to communicate that a woman is not expected or is prohibited by her culture to overtly express herself. Furthermore, not because ladies are not expected to talk or act upon their sexual impulse does not mean that sexual fantasies are dormant.
Final thoughts: As explored at the beginning of this analysis, consuming is about “using” what others have produced, in this case, the visual art of Ghada Amer. Other themes such as sex consumption (porn, prostitution) were not addressed given the scope of this analysis. From those that were addressed, here is a list of the “meanings” that I have consumed through my interpretations of her wonderfully creative and daring art exhibition: Visual and mental imagery as one component of hedonic consumption
- A permissive attitude towards female’s sex needs and desires
- A woman should appreciate and love her body
- Freedom of sexual expression
- The importance of gender equality & gender roles in every domain in life, including art
- The mix of ideas, perspectives, attitudes and images through art
- The paradox between innocence and so called sins
- “Everything has beauty but not everyone sees it” – Confucius
Pictures source: Google images