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Embroidered Sculptures

In the 1990s, Ghada Amer’s sculptures prominently featured embroidery on canvas.

Her first two sculptures produced for a post diploma show at the Villa Arson (Nice, France) in the 1990s were wall sculptures. They incorporated already several motifs that will become part and parcel of her later oeuvre: canvas, embroidery, and what will become her main subject matter: women. Like her entire artistic production, these sculptures mark the beginnings of Ghada Amer’s political and feminist statements.

The artist’s very first two wall sculptures are entitled “My Beautiful Lady” and “Mini-Jupe.” Both highlight Ghada Amer’s conceptual and minimalist artistic style. With “Mini-Jupe”, the public sees for the first time Ghada Amer’s use of thread, an element that will become her signature medium and that will heretofore define her oeuvre.

Since then, none of Ghada Amer’s sculptures hangs on the wall. Her sculptures are three dimensional, dynamic, and multisensory.

Ghada Amer’s major embroidered sculptures include the following works:

Conseils de Beauté du Mois d’Août (1993)

This is one of Ghada Amer’s earliest embroidered sculpture, shortly after graduating from Art School. Noticing that a great number of women’s magazines published beauty advice in their August edition, the artist naturally turned to them for inspiration to develop her nascent work on women’s roles and domesticity. She selected four beauty advice that she embroidered on kitchen towels and hung them on the wall.  

This sculpture was first shown in 1993 in an unusual setting: Hans Ulrich Obrist’s hotel room in Paris. At the time, the yet unknown Obrist (today director of the Serpentine Museum in London) exhibited young artists in unfamiliar settings: closets, bedrooms, staircases, etc.

Number of editions: 1 AP and edition of 1

Barbie aime Ken Ken aime Barbie (1995-2004)

This sculpture consists of two body length straightjackets sewn in an ideal 1m80 height. The size of the sculpture is intended to reflect the strict and harsh canon of beauty associated with Mattei’s dolls and internalized by female and male children worldwide. 

On each straightjacket, Ghada Amer embroidered in French “Ken aime Barbie Barbie aime Ken” [Eng. Ken loves Barbie Barbie loves Ken]. This phrase forms an indefinite loop around the bodies of each doll, signifying both the obsessive, compulsive, nature of love and the obsessive, uncontrollable search for ideal beauty that promises humans endless, eternal, love, and of course the happily ever after ending of fairy tales.

This sculpture was first featured in a 1995 group show entitled “Territoires Occupés/ Kunst Konversion,” curated by Béatrice Josse (France) and Maximilian G. Van de Sand (Germany) at the FRAC Lorraine (France) and Arge Kunst Südwestpfalz (Germany). 

Number of editions: 1 AP and edition of 3

La Belle au bois dormant (1995)

La Belle au bois dormant (Eng. Sleeping Beauty) is an installation whose title echoes that of the well-known 17th century French fairy tale by Charles Perrault. It consists of a rotating headless mannequin wearing a white wedding gown that Ghada Amer sewed and on which she embroidered the entirety of the French tale. Meanwhile, an old phonograph plays repeatedly “On the Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss. We see the dress, hear the music, and read the thread (even if we cannot fully decipher the entire carefully embroidered text). Our visual and auditory senses are engaged as we ponder the work’s association with childhood and the performance of femininity.  

On the day of the show’s opening, Ghada Amer wore a red dress she had also stitched herself, a replica of the white gown worn by the mannequin. After roaming around the gallery in the red gown, the artist changed into another outfit and placed the red dress on a wooden chair alongside the other elements of the installation.

This sculpture calls upon the viewer to participate in the performance and brings her/him into the tactile, auditory and visual world of the feminine craft.

The La Belle au Bois Dormant sculpture was first shown in 1995 in the “Le Duc sur un Noyau de Cerise et La Princesse au Petit Pois” group exhibit about fairytales, curated by Karen Rudolph. It was first shown at the Friedenstein Castle Kunstverlag in Gotha (Germany) and later that same year at FRAC Auvergne, in Villeneuve Lembron (France). 

To create this sculpture, each artist was invited to select an object from the museum wondrous [Wundersame] collection in Gotha (Germany) and to include it in their work. Ghada Amer chose the music box with Strauss’s Blue Danube playing on it and that music box hence became an integral part of her sculpture.

Number of editions: Unique

Two Pillows (1995)

This sculpture was created in the same group show as La Belle au Bois Dormant and with the same stipulation to use an object from the Gotha Wundersame (Wondrous) Collection. This time, Ghada Amer selected the beds from a bride and groom’s rooms because she was startled when she noticed that the couple slept in separate rooms.

The artist created two pillows and embroidered on each her then nascent erotic images of masturbating women. She then placed one pillow on each bed as though to remind each partner of their absent and idealized sexuality.

This sculpture was first shown in 1995 in the “Le Duc sur un Noyau de Cerise et La Princesse au Petit Pois” group exhibit about fairytales, curated by Karen Rudolph. It was first shown at the Friedenstein Castle Kunstverlag in Gotha (Germany)  

Number of editions: Unique

Borqa` (1997)

This sculpture features the face veil that some conservative Muslim women wear by choice or compulsion in a number of societies. The lace mouthpiece was commissioned by the French National Center for Visual Arts (Centre national des arts plastiques). It was created as part of an embroidery project aimed at the promotion of the famous Bayeux tapestry Conservatory and its century-old techniques of French lace production.

On the lace mouthpiece, Ghada Amer embroidered an abbreviated dictionary definition of the word “fear” in Arabic. This is the artist’s first time use of Arabic in her oeuvre.

خاف، فزع

اتقى، ضد آمن

فيقال خافه و خاف منه

و خاف عليه

Fear, Terror

Dread is the opposite of being safe.

One thus says fear him, to be afraid of him,

To worry about him.

This sculpture was created in 1997, at a time of mounting social and religious conservatism in Egypt and in Muslim-majority societies, when more and more women started adopting veiling in its myriad forms. This was also a time when Islamic dress began to be viewed with suspicion and anxiety in Muslim-minority societies and in France where the artist lived at the time.

The work highlights the artist’s anxiety at being one day forced to wear some sort of veil and intended this face veil to be the one she would adopt if she had to.

Number of editions: 8

Le Lit (1997)

This sculpture features a small tatami mattress in an antique rose colour on which the silhouette of a man and a woman holding hands is carved out. All over the tatami, the artist embroidered the definition in French of the verb “to die.”

While some have interpreted this sculpture as a celebration of “small death” (as in orgasm), the artist intended her work to speak of the loneliness of an empty bed, the absence of love, and the solitude of life and death.

This sculpture was first shown in a 1997 group show entitled “Sous le manteau” [Eng. Under the coat] curated by Caroline Smulders at the Thaddaeus Ropac Gallery in Paris (France).

Number of editions: Unique

Private Rooms (1998)

The four colorful sets of hanging shelving units that make up this work construct a private space, one that is traditionally and cross-culturally associated with women and domesticity: the home, the bedroom, the closet, the wardrobe and its linens.

On this sculpture, Ghada Amer embroidered every Quranic verse that addresses or even mentions women. The title of this sculpture borrows the title of sura 59 from the Quran, the sura that speaks about the Private Apartments of the Prophet’s wives. By citing thus directly the sacred text, the artist questions religious appropriation and invites women to read directly, reflect, and interpret for themselves religious prescriptions.

Like her gardens, this sculpture is above all a space of meditation.

Private Rooms was first shown in 1998 at The Freedom Salon: Project Room, at Deitch Projects in New York City (USA).

Number of editions: Unique

Encyclopedia of Pleasure (2001)

The title of this sculpture borrows the title of the oldest erotic treatise in Arabic dating from the late 10th/early 11th century, [Jawami` alladhdha, or Encyclopedia of Pleasure] written by an otherwise unknown author, Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Nasr al-Katib. Ghada Amer’s sculpture thus gives voice to a tradition of eroticism prevalent in medieval Islamicate societies that is currently largely forgotten in the East and often misguided in the West.

Of the 42 chapters that make up the entire Arabic text of the Encyclopedia of Pleasure, Ghada Amer was drawn to those that addressed female pleasure, a topic that remains largely taboo in both the East and the West.

She embroidered in English seven of the chapters from the Arabic treatise: chapter 7 (On Lover’s Opinions of Sexual Union), 8 (on Heterosexuality), 12 (On the Praiseworthy Aesthetic Qualities of Women), 13 (On the Manners of Women and on Chosen Women), 14 (On Women’s Desire for Coition), 16 (On Attracting Women) and 39 (On the Advantages of Nonvirgins over a Virgin).

In contrast to the majority of her other sculptures that are hand-embroidered, Ghada Amer opted with this sculpture for a type of machine embroidery, known as sirma, traditionally used across Muslim societies to display framed Quranic verses. For Ghada Amer, like for the author of the medieval treatise, speaking of eroticism and sexuality is both sacred and pressing.

This sculpture was first shown in 2001 at Deitch Projects in New York City (USA).

Number of editions: Unique

Salon Courbé (2007)

The French-inspired formal living room furniture, handwoven carpet, and wallpaper that make up this major sculpture were created for the first time in the aftermath of the events of September 11, 2001 and the 2003 USA invasion of Iraq.

In her signature style, Ghada Amer painstakingly embroidered the definition of the word “terrorism” in Arabic on every piece of furniture and on the handwoven multicolored carpet. She also printed multiple definitions of the same word “terrorism” on the wallpaper, this time in English.

By rendering the definition of the same word “terrorism” in two languages, Ghada Amer gives us two histories, two stories of a concept that since 9/11 has been indelibly associated with Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners.

The English definition of the word “terrorism” reveals that the term was coined in the aftermath of the French Revolution to refer to the enemies of the newly founded Republic.

In Arabic, the term “terrorism” was coined much later, in the 1970s and was assigned to the same lexical field as revolutionaries, misanthropes, ascetics, and Christian hermits.

Salon courbé daringly goes against the grain of contemporary political and media discourse. It invites viewers to sit down together and to engage in a discussion in two different languages.

The uneasy climate in the USA following the events of 9/11 made gallerists in New York anxious about showing a sculpture with such a daringly political message. The artist’s Salon Courbé was thus first shown in 2007 at Francesca Minini Gallery in Milan (Italy).

Number of editions: Edition of 3

S’il pleuvait des larmes

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

S’il pleuvait des larmes
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.