In a ca. 2000 review of Ghada Amer's last New York solo show 5 years ago at Deitch Projects, I wrote a send-up review in what was then my Artnet column "Into Africa":
In a recent essay on feminist art in the '90's, the art critic Libby Lumpkin writes, "Nowhere … do we discover what a woman might want; only what she does not." Ghada Amer's work refuses to bow to the puritanical elements of both our general culture and what could be called "institutionalized feminism," with its persistent myth of feminine virtue. The dance of revolving stereotypes, of desire and virtue, lust and denial, exposure and veiled elusiveness, are teased-out on the surfaces of these canvases, and left unraveled in all their complexity. Unresolved, sexed up and as yet unconsummated.
Amer's recent solo at Gagosian is tantalizing, amazing; here's another take on it via NY Blade:
Lesbian Sex Unveiled
Egyptian Artist Ghada Amer Bares All in ‘Breathe Into Me’
By Rafael Risemberg
Friday, February 10, 2006
Cotton threads cascade down a delicately hued canvas in lyrical patterns that at first glance seem abstract. But closer inspection reveals a woman’s head sewn in one corner, long-nailed hands in another, and … is that a nipple or two in the center? As your eyes accustom, you realize you are surrounded in the gallery by an embroidered sea of overlapping women, all nude and in sexually provocative positions, as many as several dozen to a canvas. Welcome to the most gorgeous new art show in town.
This veritable lesbian orgy is the handiwork of artist Ghada Amer, making her first solo New York appearance in five years, and her very first at Chelsea’s toniest gallery, the Gagosian. Born in Egypt but having spent her adolescence in Paris, Amer currently lives in New York. As seductively beautiful as her artwork is, Amer, a self-proclaimed feminist, is known for exploring heavy-hitting themes involving female sexuality, Islam and the male gaze. In her current exhibit, she has expanded her oeuvre to touch upon fairy tale fantasy.
But it is her embroideries of women that are the most arresting, and here she has constructed some of the largest and most enchanting works of her career. Though I do not know Amer’s sexual orientation, in this exhibit lesbian sex scenes abound, as with two women kissing in the works on paper, "Undercover" and "Double Kiss,' and in the tit-sucking action in the larger painting "Trini." The women seem to dissolve into each other in sensual reverie.
What may disturb a bit is to find out that all of these images are appropriated from hetero porn magazines such as "Hustler." You know the style: raunchy and numbingly explicit, leaving nothing to the imagination; feminists and others often decry it as degrading and exploitative toward women.
Which is what makes Amer's work such a triumph — she has improbably transformed the very same vulgar scenes into visions of grace and sweetness. In particular, it is the pastel colors and the loose, silky threads running across the canvases that soften the harsh, graphic images and give them an air of splendor. Even the piece "The Other Woman RFGA," which consists of 40 duplicate embroidered women thrusting dildos into themselves from behind (into which orifice is not clear), comes off as — dare I say it — delicate and lovely! You have to see it to believe it.
But the most thought-provoking aspect of Amer’s work is its relationship to her religious upbringing. The sexually explicit nature of her work would result in its being banned from any Islamic state, where her life would be in danger (consider the recent violent reactions to caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad). Ironically and pointedly, Amer's creation is a variation on what would traditionally be called "women’s work" — sewing. To my eye, the cascading threads that dominate her work can be understood as veils, akin to the ones religious Muslim women wear. The veils cover up the sexual images in a gentle evocation of censorship and at the same time lend the figures an air of tantalizing mystery. Conjointly, the threads can be seen as abstracted pubic hair.
Another interesting element is Amer's inclusion of fairy tale images of the milky pure Snow White and her seven dwarves. For instance, in one of her largest pieces, "Knotty but Nice," three Disney-fied dwarves outlined in fluorescent paint cavort among the four life-size embroidered nude women. Indeed, dwarves are the only male figures to appear anywhere in the show. Is the artist winking at us by having the women tower over the men? Come to think of it, the Snow White story is a reversal of the traditional harem; here, a bevy of men are ready to do the one woman's bidding. In a world where women are under attack from so many quarters, Ghada Amer counters with extraordinary beauty and wit.
"Breathe Into Me," 10am–6pm, Tue–Sat, until Feb. 25, at Gagosian Gallery, 555 W 24th St, gagosian.com, 212-741-1111. Rafael Risemberg, Ph.D., leads gay & lesbian art gallery tours through New York Gallery Tours: nygallerytours.com, 212-946-1548