Variations on a difficult blue

If knowledge is bodily, is it possible to receive ideas in orgasmic ways? Beyond our cerebral computation of quantitative “hard” facts, there is a more sensual and incarnate kind of knowing — an evolving understanding of shifting ideas and memories about people, places, contexts and power. Perhaps the transmission of these other forms of knowledge occurs in ways that are concentric, layered, fluid, multiple —like a female orgasm. These are my speculations as I head down Loop Street to rendezvous with artists Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh, who have just touched down in blazing Cape Town from subzero New York.

When absorbing the floral and fecund surfaces of their work, the last thing that comes to one’s mind is snow. Their mixed-media drawings hum with an interplay of hibiscus red, translucent blues and woozy pastel plains of fleshy pink, offset by intensities of jazzy yellow. Mouths and bodies tangle together in an evanescent field of desire. The stitched outlines of seductive lovemaking or masturbating women pop out from overlays of pattern and liquid washes of dripping colour. Blooming petals and flourishing leaves simultaneously reveal and conceal voluptuous shapes of rounded rumps and pert, ample breasts, human and plant bodies tangling together in a miragelike dialectic of sex.

The atmosphere is slow, tropical and steamy — a hothouse of proximity and possibility. So it’s no surprise that the sixth-floor studio Amer and Farkhondeh share on 151st Street and Broadway in Harlem gets a lot of sun.

“We’re not far from the Presbyterian Hospital, so it’s the usual New York cliché of honking, firefighter sirens and ambulances,” says Farkhondeh in an accent that blends Farsi, French and New York English. “We often hear police cars because we’re two blocks away from the precinct. We also hear lots of music in the area — especially in the summer — because it’s a Dominican neighbourhood and the people love merengue [dance music]. Everything happens outside on the boulevard — people playing checkers, cars playing music so loud they’re shaking, and sometimes there are small disputes in the neighbourhood.”

Yet when the two artists are in the process of initiating a new series of collaborative works, it generally happens in silence. “We don’t actually communicate by spoken words. I’ll do some drawings on paper and then Ghada can take whatever she likes or is inspired by to work on. And vice versa.”

Farkhondeh was born in Iran and studied in Tehran, Nice and Paris. It was at art school at the Villa Arson in Nice in 1988 that he met Amer, who had moved with her family to France from Cairo, where she was born.

They both moved to New York in 1996 and started working together almost by accident when, in 2000, after a period of immobilising depression, Farkhondeh turned to his good friend for support, moving into Amer’s studio.

Without her permission or consent, he intuitively began adding layers of paint to Amer’s canvases and drawings. At first, Amer was shocked by her friend’s uninvited interventions and became increasingly intrigued by his additions to her works in progress and began to encourage the visual dialogue.

“Collaboration is a mutant riddle. It is a type of creation that resists control,” says Amer.

They coined the moniker RFGA (Reza Farkhondeh, Ghada Amer) as their joint signature and continued their collaborations in tandem, while simultaneously sustaining their individual practices. Farkhondeh brings his open-ended investigations into the forms and beauty of nature to Amer’s explicit explorations of female sexuality.

In addition to mixed-media works on paper, their current exhibition, which opened at the Goodman Gallery in Cape Town this week, features their first series using a new material — a synthetic fabric called Pellon. This absorptive cloth bears the random traces and stains of liquid pigment and pulp that has dripped through in the paper-making process.

“We worked on the front and the back of the Pellon so that it shows traces that you would never have if you traced directly in the front,” says Amer. “We wanted these traces to be a bit vague or obscure.”

Last year, Amer was honoured by the Smithsonian Museum of African Art alongside South African artist Mary Sibande for the potency of her art, which “confronts globally relevant issues of gender, identity, inequality, access, privilege and power”. Her embroidered surfaces feature fragmented erotic imagery sourced from pornographic magazines like Hustler and Club.

“I thought embroidery was a good medium to speak about women,” she has said. “As a child I used to help my mother make dresses. In Egypt at the time it was expensive to buy already-made clothes … It was an activity where women would gather and sew together — my mother and all of her female friends, my grandmother, the grandmothers of all the neighbours of our house.”

Like Sibande, whose work draws on her female ancestral power line, Amer’s work is born of a domestic medium imbued with matrilineal inheritance.

Both Amer’s individual works and the collaborative pieces she makes with Farkhondeh lend themselves to ready circulation in the hashtag era of #MeToo and #TimesUp. They are immediately eye-catching, bold and appealing. They do not resist beauty. This makes them very transmissible and viral, but when you start to look more closely, to delve into the layers and ponder the meanings behind the titles, there’s no end to the possibilities they bring into play. Histories and meanings emerge from the layers the deeper in you get.

Both artists have made works that explicitly explore the mysterious interplay of text and image, and the titles of this collaborative series are full of eroticism, provocation, politics and wit: Madame de Pompadour; Esther, Queen of Persia; Portrait of Tallulah Black; Disarray of Emma Bovary; Courtissane; Olympia; Mutual Consent; Girl of Safe Places; Miss Indulgent; My Blood, My Decision; Boogynight; House of Lust; Flesh and Flower; Angel’s Hut; Voluptas; Daffodil; Love; Slut; and White Posy.

[Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh work on Love Is a Difficult Blue — on at the Goodman Gallery (Brian Buckley) ]

“I only have a little part in the title,” says Amer. “Reza is a poet. He loves words and writes. He works as much on the titles as on the piece — researching, thinking …”

The title of their Cape Town show, Love Is a Difficult Blue, is inspired by Alain Souchon’s L’amour à la machine — a song about putting love through the washing machine to see whether it retains the vitality of its original bright colours, in which Souchon sings: Matisse, l’amour c’est bleu difficile. The song title came to Farkhondeh as he was looking at the contour of a woman in one of Ghada’s drawings and recalling the stance of a figure in a painting by Matisse.

Both the exhibition title and the works recall the Palme d’Or-winning 2013 film by French-Tunisian director Abdellatif Kechiche, Blue Is the Warmest Colour, which unfolds a tale of intellectual and artistic striving, sexual communion and the indelible impact of first love. The film is concerned with both the inner and outer experiences of being a woman; it is as fascinated by the abstractions of thought as by the body. Like these artworks, it is erotically charged and femalecentric, but collaboratively wrought by the combination of both the male and female consciousness. In this mode of inclusive, dialogic feminism, the RFGA works also recall the title of a book by African-American author, feminist and social activist bell hooks: Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics.

Some might argue that these works replicate a stereotyped, hegemonic view of beauty. The women depicted are never large or androgynous. With their flowing tresses and voluptuous curves, they repeat classic Western ideals of female beauty. But for Amer, this stereotyping is entirely intentional.

“I want them to be stereotypes. For me it is important,” she says. “And I want them to be white. Sometimes white women are uneasy and want to know: ‘Why are all your women white? Why white?’ Because if you have an Asian woman, or an Arab woman or a black woman, who does not conform to the stereotype of white beauty, then it’s easy for white viewers to say: ‘Oh, they have the problem [prostitution, pornography, desire, lust, embodiment, sensuality]. We don’t have these problems.’ They would be looking at these women as ‘the other’ and this notion of the other is very problematic. So I’m not going to talk about the other; I’m going to talk about you and us.”

Her stance on the politics of beauty is equally clear and compelling. “When Reza and I were studying together in Nice, we had a professor of aesthetics who, from the first lesson and throughout our studies, was very focused on interrogating the notion of beauty. This was the climate in which we studied …

“It was a very dichotomous time in France in the late Eighties when they believed that painting was dead and that there was no need for beautiful things. This was the way of thinking — to be cool is to be anti-aesthetic. The world became very conceptually driven. If you had a concept and it was a good concept, you’ve got good art.

“But this is a very male, Cartesian way of looking at things. We happened to be very interested in this notion of beauty which had been abandoned. I was personally — and I think Reza was too. This was why we had chosen to do art — because we were touched by beautiful things. So it was a little bit harsh when we found that we could not even use the term ‘beauty’.

“To this day, we don’t agree with this movement. We think that beauty is a vehicle of thoughts and a political vehicle by which you can communicate in very subtle ways. Messages that hit you — boom — in your face do not have resonance. Beauty has a resonance. It has to meet you at your level and then you grow with it. I cannot relate to myself just politically. If that were the case, then I shouldn’t be working as an artist. I should be going to the Senate to make political work. I make art and it speaks about society and the life we are living.”

This does not mean that they shy away from making dangerous or hard-hitting work. Included in this exhibition is a video of their performance piece An Indigestible Dessert (2008), made in response to the era of secrets and lies spun during the George W Bush/Tony Blair era in which false information about Iraq’s alleged secret stash of weapons of mass destruction was propagated by Anglo-American intelligence services to justify the Iraq War.

This work entailed creating a lush cake with the imprints of Blair and Bush, which was destroyed by a sledgehammer-wielding Amer and consumed by the audience. “Since 2001, when Bush won the election, we were so upset. It took about six years just to digest that horrible dessert and then to speak it when nobody even wanted to speak about it.”

Ghada Amer and Reza Farkhondeh’s Love Is a Difficult Blue is on at the Goodman Gallery, third floor of Fairweather House, 176 Sir Lowry Road, Woodstock, Cape Town, until February 24. Both artists will be in conversation with the curator of the exhibition, Lara Koseff, on Saturday January 20, discussing this new body of work and their method of collaborative practice

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