Stitching Sexuality: Ghada Amer’s Craft Pornographies

by: , December 13, 2021

At first glance, the title of Ghada Amer’s 2001 artwork Pink appears to reference the soft rose tones of acrylic paint that wash the canvas. On closer inspection, however, the pink that Amer is undoubtedly referring to is delicately embroidered in backstitch and punctuated with loose threads in her depiction of two women. The first woman stares at the viewer from a seated position with her right hand caressing the nipple of her left breast, her hair tousled and tossed to the side and her legs spread open. Most suggestively, her left hand conceals a full view of her vagina; the pink to which the work’s title alludes. The second woman, seemingly oblivious to the viewer’s gaze, has her head tilted back and her eyes closed as she moans in pleasure, fondling herself between her legs. These two images of autoeroticism are repeated in hypnotic patterns horizontally across the canvas beneath the tendrils of thread that Amer has glued to its surface.

In this one work, Amer simultaneously conflates and complicates the meaning of the word ‘pink,’ gesturing towards its ideologically entrenched associations with femininity, and to more recent appropriations of ‘pink’ as slang for the vagina. The subversion of Amer’s work does not stop at the word play: ‘to pink’ can mean to decorate or embellish, while it can also convey the act of stabbing or piercing. By embroidering figures taken from soft-core pornography in her work, Amer actively engages with these multiple meanings. The clear visual reference to the decorative arts in Amer’s intricate stitching of sublime orgiastic chaos is unquestionable; however, the content of the work also functions to undermine the place of embroidery as one that has traditionally been confined to the realm of feminised domesticity. That Amer pierces her canvas with a needle and thread to create the work hints at a subversive, feminine violence that cuts across the disjuncture created between the craft she employs as her medium, and the sexual figures formed with thread.

Amer’s appropriation of pornographic imagery is not limited to Pink, but has been the sustained focus of her career for the last thirty years, appearing not only in her paintings, but also in her bronze sculptures and recent ceramic pieces. It is, however, Amer’s stitched canvasses, that she creates through her distinct method of ‘embroidered painting,’ that are most evocative. (Taraud 2002: 241) Posing an uneasy intersection between different spheres of visual culture—fine art, mass-produced pornography, and homely craft—Amer actively courts the discomfort of combining seemingly-opposing iconography to create a tension between the display of unblushing sexuality in pornography and the gentle, sweet domesticity so often bound up with embroidery. Considering this unusual alignment of pornography and embroidery, Amer stated in an interview:

With the series of erotic scenes, there is a cut, a strange collage between the technique used and what is shown. Here the sewing technique is used to the extreme. It is an aberration to spend days sewing images of women taken from pornographic magazines for men. I am here participating to the double submission of the woman, i.e. the woman sewing and the woman sewing her own distorted image! (Morineau 2009: 127)

Amer’s double-submission notably does not entail an act of surrender. Within the messy webs of thread in Knotty but Nice (2005), for example, the stitched presence of breasts with enlarged nipples, legs thrust open, probing fingers, moaning mouths and provocative stares actualises a means of breaking sexual bondage by representing female sexual experience as one that is owned entirely by the women pictured, and without the presence of men. Here, seduction is enacted not through objectification, but via reciprocation, whereby the perceived movement of the masturbatory fingers in the image are paralleled in Amer’s tweaking of needle and thread. By returning the gaze of the viewer, Amer’s threaded subjects work to transcend their status as mere sexual objects, presumably captured for the provocation of a male viewer, to assert a sense of ownership and agency over their bodies.

As a diasporic female artist who was born in Egypt, educated in France, and who currently resides and works in New York, Amer’s work has been ripe for analyses that take gender, identity, and difference as their focus points. Indeed, Amer herself has had a number of conflicting identities imposed upon her owing to her peripatetic upbringing, with her work most commonly discussed in artistic monographs through a lens of either Africanism, Middle East selfhood, or femininity. Amer, for her part, has taken a somewhat contrarian position, commenting that she is not interested in ‘showing her identity as an Egyptian woman’. (Archive on Demand 2021) Even more provocative is her comment that she wants ‘to be known as a British male artist or an American white male artist, because they get a lot of attention … [t]hey don’t have shows like “Women Artists in the 21st Century”’. (Ayad 2015) While Amer’s statement that she would prefer to be identified as a white male is a rather biting commentary on both the reception and display of the work of female artists, who are often lumped together in group shows that have no collective thread other than their shared gender, it also speaks to her rejection of a self-referential reading of her art practice. This is evidenced in a survey of the female subjects featured in her embroidered paintings, whose physical characteristics possess an opaque plainness that lends to a reading of whiteness. Although Amer gestures towards her participation in her work’s double submission, the lack of ethnically defining characteristics in her subjects indicates that Amer’s critique of female subjugation spreads far wider than the African or Middle Eastern contexts that have previously been attributed to her work.

Without undermining the significance of the substantial amount of geo-gendered scholarship on Amer’s imagery, this essay will diverge to consider the relationship between medium and form in her work. More specifically, in attending to Amer’s frisson of soft-core pornography and embroidery, I seek to interrogate her assertion that she is less concerned with exploring themes in her work than she is in considering ‘what the act of painting means and about everything it can imply’. (Taraud 2002: 238) In taking seriously Amer’s literal crafting of her artworks, I will attend to the underlying conceits of gender, sexuality, and agency interwoven into her work, to examine the representation of the eroticised female body and the capacity for craft to be pornographic.

Embroidered Origins

Amer’s turn to embroidery can be traced back to the early 1990s, when she began stitching images of women undertaking stereotypical menial tasks generally prescribed as women’s work. In Cinq Femmes au Travail (1991), Amer presents a quadriptych of four women: one nursing a young girl, one vacuuming, one cooking, and the final woman grocery shopping. In a clever twist, the fifth woman referred to in the title is not physically depicted, but is Amer herself in her role as the artist who is spectrally present in the stitched gestures of the work’s construction. She would continue this domestic focus in works such as La Femme qui repasse (1992) and Au Supermarché (1992), which portray women ironing and food shopping, respectively. The stitching in these early works possesses a minimalist simplicity and a tighter, more precise stitch that is the physical embodiment of the rigidity of the female roles depicted. Moreover, the monotone use of red thread embroidered onto natural-toned canvases gives no indication of the vibrancy of colour that would be employed by Amer in later works such as Untitled (dégradé) (1999) and Rainbow Lulu (2018), in which her female figures are charged with a kaleidoscopic eroticism. The differences do not stop with the palette, but extend to the increased tactility and texturality of Amer’s recent works. Whereas the female figures in Cinq Femmes au Travail are clearly delineated and neatly finished, the subject in Rainbow Lulu, who poses provocatively in a bra, underwear, garter belt, and stockings in one vertical sequence, and reveals her bare buttocks in another, is partially concealed by the loose threads that drape over the canvas like a sensual portière. Effectively, Amer’s stitching suggests that a woman’s domestic identity lacks the layers and multifaceted character of a woman’s sexuality, which cannot be so simply read and visually interpreted.

In reflecting on her decision to use needle and thread on her canvasses, Amer remarked, ‘I didn’t invent embroidery, but I wanted to paint with embroidery. I was speaking about women with a medium for women, and it made the speaking stronger and more present’. (Walsh & Enright 2015) The concept of embroidery being codified as a ‘medium for women’ is nothing new; however, Amer’s assertion that it provides an interface that allows women to speak has its roots in the feminist art movement of the 1970s. This decade inaugurated a number of female artists’ exploration and contestation of the boundaries of female identity formation in works that appropriate and celebrate the very materials of womanhood. One notable example is the collaborative piece Womanhouse (1972), which was coordinated by Judy Chicago and Miriam Shapiro, and used found objects such as aprons, lingerie, lipstick, tampons, and sanitary napkins to construct an installation and performance space that interrogated femininity through the lens of relational aesthetics. Central to much of the featured artists’ work was the transformation of female-designated craft activities into an artistic medium, ironically played out in a series of rooms that both referenced and subverted conventional ideas of the home, such as Chicago’s ‘Menstruation Bathroom.’

Shapiro, with fellow artist Melissa Meyer, would formalise the underlying approach of Womanhouse in the 1977 essay ‘Waste Not, Want Not: An Inquiry into What Women Saved and Assembled.’ Coining the portmanteau term ‘femmage’, Shapiro and Meyer define an artistic process that actively participates in the legacies of feminine craft methodologies and narratives:

Femmage [is] a word invented by us to include all of the above activities [collage, assemblage, decoupage, photomontage] as they were practiced by women using traditional women’s techniques to achieve their art-sewing, piecing, hooking, cutting, appliquéing, cooking and the like—activities also engaged in by men but assigned in history to women … [w]e base our interpretations of the layered meanings in these works on what we know of our own lives—a sort of archaeological reconstruction and deciphering. (Shapiro & Meyer 1977-78: 66-67)

Setting out a list of 14 criteria, half of which should be present in an artwork in order for it to qualify, Shapiro and Meyer delineate the parameters of femmage as works that, among other qualities, are made by women, involve the collection and resurrection of scraps, are attentive to the intimate life context of women, involve sewing, and contain ‘covert imagery’. (Shapiro & Meyer 1977-78: 69) Ultimately, Shapiro and Meyer’s dissertation seeks to readdress the marginalisation and ‘othering’ of women in art history and to reposition domestic activities as the foundations for a robust art practice. Indeed, much of the scholarly work on craft has sought to elevate an understanding of the medium that troubles the firm aesthetic division between artisan craft and fine arts, often to no avail. Howard Risatti traces the theoretical articulation of disdain for craft back to the 1938 book The Principles of Art in which the term craft signifies ‘failed attempts at art or simply repetitive, rote work’. (Risatti 2007: 13) Furthermore, Glenn Adamson draws attention to the gendered dimension of this division: ‘[p]artly, it was old-fashioned disciplinary disdain, artisans being kept in their place. And partly, it was a gender issue, as crafts were an unusually welcome place for women’s creativity. Whatever the reasons—and they were complicated—the craft world’s hope for a broader embrace went unrequited’. (Adamson 2020)

While both Risatti and Adamson take 20th century responses as the jumping-off point for interrogating craft, Rozsika Parker’s The Subversive Stitch maps the gendered associations of embroidery with the Renaissance, from which time it has been ideologically woven into contemporary understandings of domesticated womanhood. Parker, however, notes the disruptive power underlying the act of stitching: ‘[h]istorically, through the centuries, [embroidery] has provided both a weapon of resistance for women and functioned as a source of constraint. It has promoted submission to the norms of feminine obedience and offered both psychological and practical means to independence’. (Parker 2010: xix) Bearing in mind this complex lineage, Amer’s decision to appropriate stitching as an alternative method of painting is arguably a means to both engage with and challenge the long-held associations ascribed not only to embroidery, but also to constructions of femininity. The shift in the embroidered anatomy of Amer’s artistic oeuvre, from the underlying restraint captured in her works that engage with the domestic economy to highly sexualised images of female desire, present a very different ‘covert imagery’ from that which had previously been either stitched or painted by female artists.

Moreover, in changing her source material from advertising directed at luring the modern, consumerist woman in her early work, to pornographic magazines aimed at providing titillation for the male gaze, Amer unpicks the simplistic associations underlying embroidery as a medium that speaks to an ‘obedient’ manifestation of femininity. The indelicate exposure of the vulva and anus of the subject in Untitled (2000), accompanied by the stare she directs at the viewer, attests to this collapse. Whereas works such as Au Supermarché present a seemingly perfect alignment of form (embroidery), content (women grocery shopping), and source (women’s advertising), Amer’s transition to pornography forcefully clashes differently gendered visual codes. As a successor to Shapiro and Meyer’s loose manifesto, Amer’s work ticks many of the boxes required to qualify as femmage. Her use of pornography, however, mobilises a far more complicated constellation of gazes and perceptions than works by female artists who, according to Shapiro and Meyer, deal with the ‘woman-life context’. (Shapiro & Meyer 1977-78: 69) In appropriating images from magazines such as Club and Hustler, Amer takes one-dimensional male fantasies and reimagines them as embroidered outpourings of female sexual pleasure.

Re-territorialising Sensual Encounters

While craft has historically struggled to sit comfortably in the fine art world, with curator Namita Gupta Wiggers observing that ‘the contemporary art museum is the newest and perhaps most challenging site for the location of craft and the deployment of craft-based practices,’ pornography is yet another uneasy interloper in this space. (Wiggers 2010: 28) Although museums and galleries the world over feature nudes across multiple mediums, the hierarchical distinction between art and pornography is clearly, if not always convincingly, delineated. As Lynda Nead articulates, this distinction is conceptualised as the division between ‘the aesthetic and the obscene’ and that, ‘[f]or art to be art it has to engage the mind rather than the body; it has to involve the faculty of imagination and bring about a still, contemplative state in the viewer. Propaganda and pornography shatter the unified subjectivity of the viewer and incite, or more accurately excite, the body to action’. (Nead 2004: 216)

Although Amer has not dwelled at length on the ideological place of pornography in her work, the act of embroidering is itself arguably connected to pornography’s stirring of the body into movement. While embroidery tends to conjure images of docile women politely sitting in the corner while tending to their intricate stitching, the sheer size of Amer’s works, which generally span over two metres horizontally, requires the involvement of the entire body in their creation, beyond the nimble movement of the fingers. Moreover, Amer’s tendrils of thread consciously reference the abstract painterly drips of the 1950s Abstract Expressionist movement, in which artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning propelled violent splashes and trickles of paint at their canvasses. Also referred to as ‘action painting,’ Abstract Expressionism is enshrined in the artistic canon as the projection of a thoroughly masculine visual declaration of dynamism and rhythmic energy. In the words of Erika Doss, ‘[s]tandard postwar accounts of Abstract Expressionism cast it as an art of violence and virility, its practitioners as heroic men of action’. (Doss 2002: 135) However, counter-narratives of Abstract Expressionism have interpreted the movement as an artistic manifestation of a post-World War II crisis in Western masculinity, in which the ejaculatory dribbles of paint, particularly in Pollock’s work, are not viewed as a sign of power, but of male impotence masquerading as bravado.

Amer’s tongue-in-cheek homage to Abstract Expressionism in works such as Johanna’s Grid (1999), in which red and white acrylic paint is splattered over a masturbating woman who is repeatedly inscribed in thread on the canvas, arguably not only references the masculinised painterly gestures of the movement, but also recasts the narratives of action and inaction associated with masculinity and femininity. Whereas Pollock’s drips merely assault the surface of his canvasses, Amer’s thread literally penetrates and brings the work to life. The tangled fibres in Johanna’s Grid possess a kinetic energy that, in a quite different fashion from the paintings of Abstract Expressionism, is woven into the work. In this sense, movement is captured in the painstaking act of hand-embroidering the subject into the canvas, which in turn mimics the digital stimulation occurring within the work itself. The trailing threads that ooze from the various parts of the subject’s body are evocative not only of Pollock’s paint drips, but also the very stuff mobilised in pornography: ejaculate, saliva and sweat. The distinct absence of men in Amer’s crafted scenes, however, departs from both the ejaculatory reading given to Pollock’s work and the privileging of the ‘come shot’ in mainstream, heteronormative pornography. Instead, Amer’s messy embroidery is an exploration of female sexual pleasure that, by her own admission, brings to the forefront her interest in women and love. (Phillips 2019) As Candice Breitz argues, ‘Amer presents us with canvases which seem to pulse between a desire which we have usually understood as “male” and a still barely discernible desire which might be described as “female”’. (Breitz 1996: 15)

For Amer to situate her work at the intersection of supposedly-recognisable male lust and nascent female desire does not just present a flirtatious dismantling of entrenched ideas of the performative nature of pornography existing only for the arousal of a male audience, but also reveals an underlying urge to intervene and unsettle the gendered socio-historical narratives associated with painting. As Amer commented in an interview with curator Rosa Martínez:

The history of art has been written by men in practice and in theory. Painting has a symbolic and dominant place inside this history, and in the twentieth century it has become the major expression of masculinity, especially through abstraction … [f]or me, to defend the choice of being a painter and to use the codes of abstract painting, as they have been defined historically, is not only an artistic challenge: its main meaning is occupying a territory that has been denied to women historically. I occupy this territory aesthetically and politically because I create materially abstract paintings, but I integrate in this male field a feminine universe: that of sewing and embroidery. By hybridising those worlds, the canvas becomes a new territory where the feminine has its own place in a field dominated by men, and from where, I hope, we won’t be removed again. (Martínez 2002: 73)

The notion of painting as a distinctly male endeavour is undermined and reversed in pieces in which Amer re-creates, and arguably feminises, significant works from art history. My Nympheas (2011) appropriates the vibrant pigmentation and voluptuous shapes of Claude Monet’s Nymphéas series. However, while Monet employs paint to capture the palette of the flora and to illustrate the refractions of light on the water’s surface at his garden in Giverny, Amer’s waterlilies are women from pornography. The sinuous movement of the loops of thread lend an aquatic sensibility to the work, whereby the women appear to haunt the subterranean depths of Monet’s waterlily pond. In so doing, the faces of women usually confined to the frames of the pornographic image leak into the art canon. This playful contamination of the innocuous setting of Monet’s flower garden reinserts female subjectivity into the masculine domain of painting, effectively creating the ‘new territory’ that Amer aims to inculcate in the art world.

Similarly, Who Killed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (2010) clearly gestures towards Pablo Picasso’s seminal cubist work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907). While Picasso’s brothel scene of five women portrays all the visual characteristics of cubism—such as geometric shapes, jarring angles and fractured perspectives—and alludes to Picasso’s obsession with the exoticism of the other through the African masks donned by three of the women, Amer’s reimagining of the scene is suffused with a soft, full-bodied sensual movement quite unlike the static blocks of paint that compose the original. In Amer’s work, the faces of at least nine women are layered onto the canvas, lending the scene a spectral quality as though the death alluded to in her work’s title is that of the original Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, which is hidden beneath the embroidered palimpsest of Amer’s women. In metaphorically killing Picasso’s young ladies by burying them beneath her tangled threads, Amer’s subjects are unmasked and liberated from the fixity of the male gaze as they explore each other’s bodies in acts of cunnilingus and mutual masturbation.

Referencing Amer’s adverse possession of the traditionally masculine territory of painting via the penetrative act of embroidery, Maura Reilly poses the question, ‘Is she [Amer] herself claiming the position of mastery, and violating the site of painting, which she has repeatedly ascribed as masculine, with her own mini-phallus?’. (Reilly 2010: 26-27) Although Reilly’s proposition is compelling, I regard Amer’s painterly conquest in works such as My Nympheas and Who Killed Les Demoiselles d’Avignon as less concerned with violation than reclamation. In these works, Amer is not only defiantly asserting the right of female artists to enter the hallowed space of painting, but also declaring that women’s bodies are a site for their own pleasure, and not simply for male spectatorship. By referencing and re-creating works by key male artists, Amer mobilises a moment of the uncanny with the presence of her pornographic women not merely haunting, but repossessing the spaces of 19th and 20th century male-dominated art.

Significantly, Amer’s practice of subversive occupation is not restricted to art history—it also extends to popular iconography. In Les Flâneuses (2008), Amer employs the female derivative of Charles Baudelaire’s gentleman stroller known as the ‘flâneur’ to title her work. (Baudelaire 1863: 5-38) The flâneuses in Amer’s embroidered painting are depicted as wandering not the city—the customary space of flâneurie—but the forest of Walt Disney’s animated film Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937). Using the scene in which the banished Snow White is comforted by a group of woodland animals, Amer obfuscates the Disney narrative with the presence of women provocatively posing. Amer is clearly aware of the underlying humour in this collision of popular culture, as the rabbit that in Disney’s version is overcome with delight upon hearing Snow White sing has found a different source of pleasure in Amer’s work: the exposed nipple of a smiling woman.

In juxtaposing the virginal and innocent Snow White, who is often unconsciously placed in front of young girls as a guide for idealised womanhood, with women from pornography who are knowingly asserting their sexuality, Amer stages an encounter of opposites on the surface of her canvas. However, both Snow White and Amer’s women share a common sense of being displaced: Snow White from the castle, and Amer’s subjects from the frames of the pornographic image. While bringing these two disparate examples of female subjectivity together could be interpreted as a critique of the limited identities available to women in visual culture, by referring to them collectively as flâneuses in the title of her work, Amer binds them together in a movement of females who journey beyond the spaces in which they conventionally belong. Notably, much like her subjects, Amer herself is a flaneuse, one who intervenes in masculine spaces of artistic practice and pornographic consumption that have historically neither welcomed nor considered women.

Amer again reinforces the link between the Disney princess and her pornographic women in Snow White Without the Dwarves (2009). In this work, repeated depictions of Snow White and a curly-haired woman are embroidered in multi-coloured threads over a faceless woman with her legs spread to expose her pubic hair. Amer’s removal of the dwarves, and the look of sheer delight on Snow White’s face, recast Disney’s narrative as one of sexual awakening. In Amer’s world, Snow White’s exile places her within a hyper-pigmented and female-only space of discovery in which, to use Lauren Elkin’s conceptualisation of the flâneuse, ‘[s]he voyages out, and goes where she’s not supposed to; she forces us to confront the ways in which words like home and belonging are used against women’. (Elkin 2016: 22) This liberated reframing of Snow White is again employed in one of Amer’s collaborative works with Iranian artist Reza Farkhondeh, entitled Apples and Petunias (2011). Although explicit pornographic imagery is absent from this work, Snow White’s suggestive biting of an apple is superimposed in watercolour over stitched petunias that infer vaginal budding. Snow White’s consumption of the apple gestures less towards the original plot of poisoning and the need to be awoken with ‘love’s first kiss,’ than to a gentle sexual initiation that, significantly, does not involve the opposite sex. Snow White’s desire is visually conveyed by presenting her body from the waist down as sensual drips of watercolour that dissolve into the work. Through Amer’s sensual lens, Snow White is released from the shackles of childhood innocence and granted sexual agency. At the same time, the viewer’s expectations are playfully perverted, rendering visual cognition uncertain and ambiguous.

Erotic Visions, Fractured Perspectives

When I was in the process of researching Amer, I was asked in casual conversation by a male acquaintance what I was working on. I replied that I was studying the work of a female artist who embroiders pornography. In what was a rather hilariously predictable response to the mention of pornography, the male acquaintance immediately whipped out his smart phone and asked that I spell the artist’s name. Following a speedy appraisal of the search results, he definitively concluded, with what I perceived was an odd mixture of arrogance and disappointment, ‘That’s not porn.’ This anecdote is not intended to detract from the critical thrust of this essay, but rather to serve as an entry point into unpacking the nature of pornography. The figures in Amer’s works are not merely derived from pornography; they are traced directly from the source material, and replicate exactly the visual tropes of the genre. Amer’s Waiting for J. (1999-2000), for example, encapsulates all the performative characteristics expected of a pornographic image: a female subject, whose blouse is unbuttoned to expose her shapely breasts while her left-hand searches for pleasure between her legs, and her head is thrown back mid-orgasm. If this is not pornography, at what point was the link to the original image of titillation broken?

On one level, Walter Benjamin’s concept of ‘aura’ could potentially be utilised to consider why Amer’s work is not strictly pornographic. In re-creating pornographic imagery, Amer destroys the aura—what Benjamin defines as ‘its presence in time and space, its unique existence’ (Benjamin 1969: 3)—of the soft-core image. However, this theoretical approach is inherently flawed as, paradoxically, it is Amer’s reproductions, which are themselves singular works of art, that possess the ‘unique existence,’ or aura, ascribed by Benjamin, and not the original pornographic image that has been mass-produced and widely distributed. In reversing the flow of aura, Amer, whether consciously or unconsciously, highlights the inherent lack of aura imbued within pornography, while ingraining a special individuality within her own work that seemingly disassociates her art from the original salacious reference. Hans Maes and Jerrold Levinson also agree that Amer’s work is not pornographic, contending that her oeuvre includes ‘works of art that mimic, criticize, or reference pornography. They are like pornography or about pornography, but arguably they are not themselves pornography’. (Maes & Levinson 2012: 2) Although Maes and Levinson do not go on to further consider Amer’s artworks in depth, it is arguably not the content of her work that eludes being typecast as pornography: it is the execution. Indeed, the patterned repetition of the female subject in Waiting for J. is largely concealed beneath jagged, horizontal stitches that complicate the seemingly simple act of looking.

In Anne Marie E. Butler’s analysis of Heather’s Dégradé (2006), a work stitched in varying shades of red thread in which overlapping figures wantonly reveal their vaginas, she reads the act of degradation alluded to in the title as being achieved via the viewer’s gaze, as opposed to the actions of the women: ‘[i]t is perhaps not the women who are degraded but the viewer’s perception. Amer disrupts the typical directionality of looking at sexualised women and at artworks by playing with figuration and abstraction, turning back onto the viewer the discomfort of their obtrusive gaze’. (Butler 2020: 77) Unlike pornography, which according to Tom Gunning, derives ‘primarily from what Barthes describes as “the school boy’s dream,” the desire to denude, to know, founded more in curiositas than eros’ (Gunning 2005: 264), viewing Amer’s work engenders a strange sensation of erotic myopia. The movement of the viewer’s gaze across the surfaces of her canvases seeks to unveil and reveal the seductive minutiae of the embroidery; however, the combination of the overlapping repetition of her female figures and the loose threads glued to the canvas instead work to conceal and disguise a cohesive view. In positing this crafted seduction, the visual rhythms encapsulated in the movement of thread function to frustrate the scopophilic desire to denude and reveal her subjects.

Although the women in Heather’s Dégradé meet the viewer’s gaze, this does not unfold as an act of mutuality, but as a provocation. As one woman, seemingly looking directly at the viewer, prises apart her labia, any opportunity to metaphorically penetrate this seduction is frustrated by the tangled threads. In this sense, not only is the link to pornography problematised by Amer’s chosen medium, but also the manner in which her works arguably deny a male viewer any opportunity for interpellation. Amer’s scenes of solo or lesbian sex are entirely bereft of the phallocentricism of mainstream, heteronormative pornography. These women escape the performative frame of the pages of Club and Hustler to, in the words of Giulia Lamoni, ‘explore the territories of women’s pleasure and to question the limits between pornography and eroticism, between submission and seduction’. (Lamoni 2011: 190) Although Lamoni’s reading leans towards a dialogue in Amer’s work between the pornographic and the erotic, the pornographic nature of Amer’s source material is undoubtedly displaced by the erotic embroidered execution. Gloria Steinem provides a useful breakdown of the distinction between erotica and pornography by examining the etymology of each word. She writes that erotica ‘is rooted in “eros” or passionate love’, while pornography is derived from porno, ‘meaning “prostitution” or “female captives,”’ and graphos, referring to representation and writing. (Steinem 1998: 91) Steinem’s explication draws a line between eroticism, which is conceptualised as consensual and reciprocal, and the unequal power dynamics bound up with pornography. To this end, Amer’s restaging of the biblical Eden in the pastel-hued work The Garden of Eden (2000) represents the site of the garden replete with women in poses that have been delicately stitched to display the contours of their bodies. Without the presence of Adam or God, Amer transforms a topography of shame into one of jouissance.

It is not only Amer’s foregrounding of female pleasure in a space without men that lends to a reading of her work as erotic; it is also embodied in the distinct play on perception in works such as You My Love (2011), in which Amer’s messy and smeared application of black acrylic paint almost effaces the women stitched into the canvas who masturbate each other. Roland Barthes asserts that eroticism is ‘the staging of an appearance-as-disappearance’ (Barthes 1975: 9-10), clearly gesturing towards the manner in which the erotic seduces through optical uncertainty. Laura U. Marks expands on this idea in her study of visual erotics, claiming that ‘[e]roticism is an encounter with an other that delights in the fact of its alterity, rather than attempt to know it. Visual erotics allows the thing seen to maintain its unknowability, delighting in playing at the boundary of that knowability. Visual erotics allows the object of vision to remain inscrutable’. (Marks 2002: 18) The notion of inscrutability, which arises through the manipulation of perspective and the suspension of knowability, can in Marks’ conception of eroticism be read in regard to not only the erotic subject matter of Amer’s work, but also the manner in which she remaps gender assumptions associated with painting and desire, as well as the ideological space of embroidery.

In Parker’s explication of the ‘conflation of embroidery and female sexuality,’ she refers to this conception of female sexuality as one that is ‘innately virginal’. (Parker 2010: 2) However, delicate, inoffensively pretty embroidery that denotes purity and innocence, which is so often confined and constrained by the boundaries of an embroidery hoop or the apparatus of a loom, can be set in direct contrast with the loose stitches and vast size of Amer’s embroidered paintings. In works such La Jaune (Untitled) (1999), in which vermillion red and inky blue threads leak and dribble down the canvas, Amer resists the standard practice of concealing the loose threads on the back of the work. Trickling down the surface of the canvas in veil-like strands, Amer recoups embroidery from a state of modesty and makes it unashamedly erotic. In so doing, she creates a sense of optical discomfort that denies the viewer the easy access to visual pleasure allowed by pornography. This flirtation between revealing and concealing, displacing the primacy of male desire with female sexual agency, and forging a new visual territory for female artistic expression is at the crux of Amer’s resistance to entrenched ideas about the place of women within the contemporary art world. While Parker writes that, ‘[w]hen women embroider, it is seen not as art, but entirely as the expression of femininity’ (Parker 2010: 5), Amer demonstrates that the expression of femininity, or more explicitly female sexuality, is itself art.


Adamson, Glenn (2020), ‘Why the Art World Is Embracing Craft’, Artsy, 13 January 2020, (last accessed 7 October 2020).

Archive on Demand (2021), ‘FIT ARTSpeak lecture series 2014: Ghada Amer’, YouTube, 12 May 2021, (last accessed 4 December 2021).

Ayad, Myrna (2015), ‘Ghada Amer, Feminist Provocateur of Middle Eastern Art, on Experimenting with an Ancient Medium’, Artspace, 17 November 2015, (last accessed 1 November 2020).

Barthes Roland (1975), The Pleasure of the Text, New York: Hill and Wang.

Baudelaire, Charles (1963), ‘The Painter of Modern Life (1863)’, in Jonathan Mayne (ed. and trans.), The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays, 2nd edition, London: Phaidon, pp. 5-38.

Benjamin, Walter (1969), ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935)’, in Hannah Arendt (ed.), Illuminations, New York: Schocken Books, pp. 1-26.

Breitz, Candice (1996), ‘Ghada Amer: The Modelling of Desire’, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, Vol. 5, pp. 14-16.

Butler, Anne Marie E (2020), ‘Cover Art Concept’, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies, Vol. 16, No. 1, pp. 77-78.

Doss, Erika (2002), Twentieth-Century American Art, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Elkin, Lauren (2016), Flâneuse: Women Walk the City in Paris, New York, Tokyo, Venice and London, London: Chatto & Windus.

Gunning, Tom (2005), ‘The Desire and Pursuit of the Hole: Cinema’s Obscure Object of Desire’, in Shadi Bartsch & Thomas Bartscherer (eds), Erotikon: Essays on Eros, Ancient and Modern, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, pp. 261-277.

Lamoni, Giulia (2011), ‘Philomena as Metaphor: Sexuality, Pornography, and Seduction in the Textile Works of Tracey Emin and Ghada Amer’, in Isabelle Loring Wallace & Jennie Hirsch (eds), Contemporary Art and Classical Myth, Surrey: Ashgate, pp. 175-197.

Maes, Hans & Jerrold Levinson (2012), ‘Introduction,’ in Hans Maes & Jerrold Levinson (eds), Art & Pornography: Philosophical Essays, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 1-13.

Marks, Laura U. (2002), Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Martínez, Rosa (2002), ‘Ghada Amer’, MAKE: The Magazine of Women’s Art, Vol. 92, pp. 72-74.

Morineau, Camille (2009), elles@centrepompidou: Women Artists in the Collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre de Création Industrielle, Paris: Centre Georges Pompidou Service Commercial.

Nead, Lynda (2004), ‘“Above the Pulp-line”: The Cultural Significance of Erotic Art’, in Pamela Church Gibson (ed.), More Dirty Looks: Gender, Pornography and Power, London: British Film Institute, pp. 216-223.

Parker, Rozsika (2010), The Subversive Stitch: Embroidery and the Making of the Feminine, London: Bloomsbury.

Phillips (2019), ‘In the Studio with Ghada Amer’, YouTube, 8 August 2019, (last accessed 2 September 2020).

Reilly, Maura (2010), ‘Writing the Body: The Art of Ghada Amer’, in Ghada Amer, New York: Gregory R. Miller, pp. 6-49.

Risatti, Howard (2007), A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression, Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Schapiro, Miriam & Melissa Meyer (1977-78), ‘Waste Not Want Not: An Inquiry into what Women Saved and Assembled–FEMMAGE’, Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics, Vol. 1, No. 4, pp. 66-69.

Steinem, Gloria (1998), ‘Erotica and Pornography: A Clear and Present Difference’, in Robert M. Baird & Stuart E. Rosenbaum (eds), Pornography: Private Right or Public Menace?, Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, pp. 89-93.

Taraud, Estelle (2002), ‘Interview with Ghada Amer’, Studies in 20th Century Literature, Vol. 26, No. 1, pp. 237-248.

Walsh, Meeka & Robert Enright (2015), ‘The Thread of Painting: An Interview with Ghada Amer,’ Border Crossings, August 2009, (last accessed 14 August 2020).

Wiggers, Namita Gupta (2010), ‘Craft Performs’, in Valerie Cassel Oliver (ed.), Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse in Art and Craft, Houston: Contemporary Arts Museum, pp. 27-33.

Download article


Feeling inspired by MAI? Dedicated to intersectional gender politics in visual culture? Want to keep your feminist imagination on fire? MAI newsletter will help refresh your zeal for feminism with first-hand news on our new content. 

Subscribe below to stay up-to-date.

* We'll never share your email address with any third parties.


The team of MAI supporters and contributors is always expanding. We’re honoured to have a specialist collective of editors, whose enthusiasm & talent gave birth to MAI.

However, to turn our MAI dream into reality, we also relied on assistance from high-quality experts in web design, development and photography. Here we’d like to acknowledge their hard work and commitment to the feminist cause. Our feminist ‘thank you’ goes to:

Dots+Circles – a digital agency determined to make a difference, who’ve designed and built our MAI website. Their continuous support became a digital catalyst to our idealistic project.
Guy Martin – an award-winning and widely published British photographer who’s kindly agreed to share his images with our readers

Chandler Jernigan – a talented young American photographer whose portraits hugely enriched the visuals of MAI website
Matt Gillespie – a gifted professional British photographer who with no hesitation gave us permission to use some of his work
Julia Carbonell – an emerging Spanish photographer whose sharp outlook at contemporary women grasped our feminist attention
Ana Pedreira – a self-taught Portuguese photographer whose imagery from women protests beams with feminist aura
And other photographers whose images have been reproduced here: Cezanne Ali, Les Anderson, Mike Wilson, Annie Spratt, Cristian Newman, Peter Hershey