A Battle of Signs

Self Portrait in Black and White, 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas - 127X121.92 cm - 50X48 in
Self Portrait in Black and White, 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas - 127X121.92 cm - 50X48 in

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Portraits of the Women that I Know is an ongoing series of portraits that Ghada Amer started in 2013 and that includes a self-portrait. Each one consists of two superimposed elements: the painted portrait and a statement repeated on the canvas from top to bottom, embroidered with thread. On the Portrait of Ellen for instance, we read: “After all we are constantly being told how to look how to age how to eat how to act can’t we at least think what we want.” Words and painting vie for the audience’s attention. Anne Creissels problematizes the relationship between the two mediums in Amer’s work, reflecting on the difficulty of reading and looking at the same time. In the case of the portraits, do viewers search for resemblance with the person whose portrait it is or do they instead become readers as they attempt to decipher the statements? 

Portrait of Ellen 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas 114.3X114.3 cm - 45X 45 cm
Figure 1. Ghada Amer, Portrait of Ellen, 2020.

The Portrait: a Battlefield of Male and Female Signs

To consider these two elements of the paintings, the portrait and the text, it is worth examining the series from a semiotic perspective, the study of how signs create meaning. Two signs are at play here: the visual sign, that of the portrait, and a linguistic sign, the statements. According to Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure, a sign is composed of a signifier, the visual or aural cue of the sign, and a signified, which is the mental concept the signifier conjures. If we consider Amer’s painting as a sign, we might view the embroidered letters as the signifier, and the feminist statement as the signified. The visual signifier is the painted portrait and the visual signified is the woman’s personality. Because of the way they are juxtaposed on the canvas, the visual and linguistic signs in the painting compete for the viewer’s attention.

This competition is apparent in the overlap between the visual and linguistic signifiers, the embroidered letters and the painted portrait. The embroidered letters form the portrait, yet the paint obstructs our reading of the linguistic signified. Amer has noted throughout her career that painting is a male language on account of it being an art form historically dominated by men. We might thus consider painting here as a male signifier which obstructs the reading of the female signifier, the embroidered feminist statements. The competition of signs becomes a competition between male and female, one which Amer’s artistic style, that of superimposing the painted visual and embroidered linguistic, foregrounds.

Figure 2. Close-up of Ghada Amer, Portrait of Ellen, 2020.

The Portraits or the Victory of Amer’s Artistic Style

Another component of de Saussure’s theory of signs is the external referent which is “out there” in the world. While in the case of language, the referent can at times be inconsequential, it is of great importance in visual portraiture. This is because the painting immediately points to the world inhabited by the paintings’ subjects. A portrait, after all, is meant to represent the physical traits and psychological character of a person. But in this series, aside from Amer’s self-portrait, the women represented are unknown to viewers. The visual signifier becomes eclipsed by the linguistic one because it no longer fulfils its role as the iconic representation of someone. Here the portrait becomes more reflective of its maker than of its subject. Amer’s authority prevails in her selection of the political statements, an authority that clouds the viewers’ ability to see a subject who is unknown to all but the artist herself. And, in the conflict between male and female, between the portrait and the embroidered text, the feminist statement takes precedence. 

Moreover, repetition is an important aspect of this series. Not only is the statement repeated throughout each painting, but the technique employed in creating the paintings is repeated throughout the series. For Wendy Steiner, this type of “mechanical repetition” in postmodernist portraiture creates a “unique identity”. In the case of Amer’s series, the multiplied linguistic signifier on each canvas overtakes the singular visual portrait. Repeated, they become mantras that take on a life of their own, independent of the identity of the woman depicted. Not only are the statements important as a feminist signifier eclipsing the visual referent, but they are also heightened as an embroidered signifier that bears the imprint of Amer’s artistry. Taking a step back and looking at the series as a whole, the formal repetition within it becomes itself a sign of the artist’s style, her convergence of opposites into one. The series becomes a portrait, not of the women Ghada Amer knows, but of her own authorial and artistic signature.

Portrait of Kamilah 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas 122X122 cm - 48X48 in
Figure 3. Ghada Amer, Portrait of Kamilah, 2020
Portrait of Sindy 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas 122X122 cm - 48X48 in
Figure 4. Portrait of Sindy, 2020
Self Portrait in Black and White, 2020, Acrylic embroidery and gel medium on canvas - 127X121.92 cm - 50X48 in
Figure 5. Self-portrait in Black and White, 2020

Works cited:

  • Creissels, Anne. “Entre Corps et Mots: pièges du regard et espaces de résistance,” Ghada Amer: 
  • Rainbow Girls. Cheim & Read: New-York, 2014.
  • De Saussure, Ferdinand. Course in General Linguistics: Translated by Wade Baskin. Edited by Perry Meisel and Haun Saussy. New York: Columbia University Press, 2011.Steiner, Wendy. “Postmodernist Portraits.” Art Journal 46: 3 (2014).

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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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