Ghada Amer - Why I Create
Exploring the inspirations and attitudes of artists working with clay and ceramic, featured in Vitamin C
Ghada Amer works in many different media ranging from fired ceramics and embroidered ‘paintings’ to stainless steel sculptures and garden installations of carnivorous plants. Best known for her erotically charged works, which often layer colourful abstractions over embroidered images of nude women masturbating or engaged in sexual activity, Amer is uncensored in her artistic depictions, which have bold feminist overtones.
Amer’s ceramic works can be considered in two categories. The first, her slab-based works, use a flat surface of clay as a canvas on which to depict sexual scenes that echo those found in her drawings, prints and paintings. Female figures are rendered in colourful outlines over painterly patches of coloured glaze. The images are therefore imposed onto clay surfaces one could imagine being discovered in an archaeological dig, making a link with the erotic appetites of the ancient Greeks. In contrast, the second category sees more sculptural, tactile objects taking form, as if the artist has prodded, stretched, folded or knotted lumps of clay.
Here, the Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art featured artist tells us why she works in the medium, what particular challenges it holds for her and who she thinks always gets it right.
Who are you and what’s your relationship to clay and ceramics? My name is Ghada Amer and I am an artist who loves to experiment. I call myself a painter, although I think that my skill is in drawing. My love of sculpture has been growing since 2010, although this was not always the case. In school we were allowed to ignore one medium and I chose to ignore ceramics (it was the end of the Eighties). I thought it was not cool and I thought only of pots and useful objects. I was arrogant and I thought I was a painter. I did not allow myself to even think about this medium. This has changed!
Why do you think there’s an increased interest around clay and ceramics right now? I do not know why there is an increase of interest in ceramics. I wanted to try ceramics around 2008, but I couldn't find a place where artists could explore this medium, as I was told I had to start from the beginning. I only had the opportunity to work with resin, stainless steel and bronze (“high art,” s'il vous plaît!). I am not a sculptor, so the only thing I could do when I was working with fabricators on my metal pieces was to draw and correct their clay models by writing or drawing where the line should go. They would take the oil clay and make coils, it looked easy and my reaction was to take the clay and do the same, but I could not. I got frustrated. I secretly decided to take classes to learn how to roll these coils.
Ceramics is sometimes regarded as decorative, rather than fine arts. Does the distinction bother or annoy you? Yes, this distinction annoys me. It is not only ceramics that is regarded as decorative, but also all the calligraphic art that has been developed in what the West calls "Muslim countries." In Islamic culture, it is called abstraction. I think the term "decorative" is used to demean the other, to make him less than you. Art history teaches you that a culture for 14 centuries only made decorative arts while the "other," "the good culture" made "art." It was always very shocking to me how Western culture loves to put itself in the spotlight and assumes primacy in art-making.
It is the same when people say: "woman artist," "artist from the Middle East." I even heard "Muslim artist". I do not think it is an arbitrary distinction, but a political one. A group of random people decided that a medium or a group of artists is outside the inner circle because they do not look like them. I think in this case, it is "painting" that is responsible. Painting excluded ceramics because painting thinks of itself as the ultimate expression of "ART." This does not give me freedom, but it gives me rage and rage is my artistic fuel.
Whose work in this field do you admire? I admire the ceramics of Peter Lane. I visited his studio a couple of months ago and was even more impressed. I am not very impressed with the technicalities in any medium. I am more impressed with the freedom that one has with the medium and this is what leads to an artistic expression. Peter Lane has this freedom. I love the boldness and the mass of his objects.
What are the hardest things for you to get ‘right’ and what are your unique challenges? I do not know what you mean by getting things right? My unique challenge is the size of my body and the weakness of my muscles. Everything is so heavy and you always depend on a group of people if you want to do something bigger than a bowl!
What part does the vulnerability of the material play in things? Is it an attraction or a distraction. I do not think of ceramics as being a vulnerable material! It is the only material that has lasted since Prehistoric times. It is one of the strongest materials that humans have discovered.
Is how you display a piece an important element of the work itself? Do you ever suggest how something might be displayed? Yes, I very much like to suggest and sometimes "impose" how a piece should be displayed. I learned this from my first metal pieces. I am now making the pedestals and the whole display is what the collector gets. I do not want my ceramics to be put on a table!
What’s next for you, and what’s next for ceramics? Next is to continue developing my sculpture. I find ceramics are like drawings. It is the base for sculpture. I am discovering a love for the medium, and this is very surprising to me, because painting is my first love. I thought I would never be able to have a second lover. What is next for ceramics is to be appreciated and not rejected. In any case ceramics does not care, it is there and always be, despite the jealous (the painters).
Clay and ceramics have in recent years been elevated from craft to high art material, with the resulting artworks being coveted by collectors and exhibited in museums around the world. Vitamin C: Clay and Ceramic in Contemporary Art celebrates the revival of clay as a material for contemporary artists, featuring a wide range of global talent selected by the world's leading curators, critics, and art professionals. Packed with illustrations, it's a vibrant and incredibly timely survey - the first of its kind. Buy Vitamin C here. And if you're quick, you can snap up work by Ghada Amer at Artspace here.