Going for a Walk in Ghada Amer’s Garden

DX Ghada Amer 2 Lance Gerber
DX Ghada Amer 2 Lance Gerber

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Ghada Amer’s Desert X exhibition, Women’s Qualities, consists of a circle of words describing women, each spelled out using different plants. Amer explains in an interview that she was first prompted to create public outdoor installations because, historically, it was men who occupied this space, leaving women confined indoors or gardening in their own private yards. If domesticity is historically synonymous with women, the idea that these could not access the outdoors in the past can be challenged by examining one of Jane Austen’s works, Pride and Prejudice

Circling Elizabeth Bennet

While famously known for portraying women on the brink of marriage, Austen’s novels are populated with female characters’ long walks, asserting their place outside the home. Elizabeth Bennet is seen “crossing field after field” (Austen, 31) to visit her ill sister. Because she shows no concern for the perceived strangeness of the activity and its effect on her appearance, walking presents itself as a point of contention in the novel. Different characters offer their opinions on her plan to go for a walk and their reaction upon its completion.

This never-ending debate on what a woman can do or be echoes Amer’s installation. After all, the qualities, which dictate what women should be, were selected by local men and women through a poll Amer conducted. They become representative of society, and their ideas portrayed in the garden sculpture. Thus, women remain trapped by social opinion, which the installation visualises in its circular form, a never-ending loop (fig. 1). Interestingly, each of the women’s qualities in Amer’s installation is reflected in Austen’s novel. From the start, Elizabeth cannot be dissuaded from her walk despite her family’s objections. She is determined, just like the women in Amer’s installation. Her motive for walking expresses her care and nurturing qualities towards her beloved sister. Yet, just as society would have it, she remains resilient and strong when she is “springing over stiles and jumping over puddles” (Austen, 31). She remains beautiful in a man’s eye, as Mr. Darcy finds himself in “admiration of the brilliancy” which the walk accorded to her complexion (Austen, 31). This scene from Jane Austin’s novel  eerily parallels the women’s qualities in Amer’s installation; Elizabeth is bound by society, by the circle.

Figure 1. Women’s Qualities, Sunnylands 2001.

“The scene eerily parallels the women’s qualities in Amer’s installation; Elizabeth is bound by society, by the circle.”

Piercing the Circle

However, walking also offers an opportunity to defy the restrictions prescribed by social expectations.In Regency-era Pride and Prejudice, it is the very act of walking that is rebellious: Elizabeth walks stubbornly alone, revelling in the physical exertion and the “warmth of exercise” (Austen, 31). Her three-mile-long walk traces a linear path which pierces through the orbit of social opinions. By walking, she is released from the confinement of women in the nineteenth century.

Similarly, when the visitor of Amer’s installation walks around the sculpture, s/he literally penetrates the circular constriction, enacting what Elizabeth, in Pride and Prejudice, did metaphorically and in a linear form. Roaming these grounds, surrounded by the qualities, visitors must ponder what they represent, they must reflect on why such expectations are imposed on women. And, as the qualities themselves are planted in flowerpots, an object traditionally associated with the feminine, the outdoors are suddenly transformed into a domestic space, further challenging the conventional association of outdoor gardens with the masculine (fig. 2).

“Surrounded by the qualities, visitors must ponder what they represent, they must reflect on why such expectations are imposed on women.” 

Figure 2. Close-up of  “Loving” from Women’s Qualities, Sunnylands 2001.

If walking allowed Austen’s female protagonist to defy male dominance, it permits all of Amer’s visitors to challenge social expectations through the reflection it encourages. Women’s Qualities questions the association of women with domesticity by recalling a movement which can be as defiant for women today as it was for Austen’s Elizabeth then.

 Works cited:

Austen, Jane. Pride and Prejudice. New York: Signet Classics, 2008.

“Ghada Amer in Conversation with Rosa Martinez.” MAKE Magazine, 2002.

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Aida Youssef
Aida Youssef
Aida Youssef is a film critic and aspiring filmmaker. She holds a first-class honours degree in Comparative Literature with Film Studies from King’s College, London (2018), where she was particularly interested in the role of fiction in non-fiction. Upon completion of her studies, she put into practice her cinematic knowledge and made her first film, a poetic exploration of displacement. She is currently based in Cairo, Egypt.
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Boris Vian

S’il pleuvait des larmes
Lorsque meurt un amour
S’il pleuvait des larmes
Lorsque des coeurs sont lourds

Sur la terre entière
Pendant quarante jours
Des larmes amères
Engloutiraient les tours

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Lorsque meurt un enfant
S’il pleuvait des larmes
Au rire des méchants

S’il pleuvait des larmes
En flots gris et glacés
Des larmes amères
Rouleraient le passé

S’il pleuvait des larmes
Quand on tue les coeurs purs
S’il pleuvait des larmes
Quand on crève sous les murs

Sur la terre entière
Il y aurait déluge
Des larmes amères
Des coupables et des juges

S’il pleuvait des larmes
Chaque fois que la mort
Brandissant les armes
Fait sauter les décors

Sur la terre entière
Il n’y aurait plus rien
Qu’les larmes amères
des deuils et du destin.