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  • Anne Marie E Butler (bio)

From afar Ghada Amer’s Heathers Dégradé (2006) appears abstract: red threads weave in and out of the canvas and trail down its front, creating a striated pattern. In close detail, however, feminine figures repeat under the ribboned strokes, their contours marked by small, precise stitches. Behind the curtain of threads the figures pose like women in pornographic images. In views alternating between front and rear, the women are stamped onto the canvas in even rows. In the front view, the woman is seated with knees to chest, her hands reaching around to stimulate and expose her vulva. In the rear view, she poses on hands and knees with her underwear around her thighs, arching her back and turning her head coyly over her left shoulder.

In textiles, dégradé is a fabric treatment where colors gradually fade from richly pigmented to subtly shaded. In Heathers Dégradé Amer plays on the term to reference both the domesticity evoked by sewing, fabric, and craft and the demeaned state of the women. However, like the wordplay in the title, which allows multiple meanings, the work itself does not present the women as objectively degraded, nor is it wholly a commentary against the diminution of women. Instead, the viewer’s gaze on these women as objects is mediated by the same thread that constitutes their bodies: rather than clipping the left-over thread, Amer pulls the remains of the stitches that outline the forms through the canvas, allowing them to cascade down its surface. The material that forms the figures as objects of desire thereby becomes that which frustrates the viewer’s voyeurism, degrading the very gaze that seeks an intimate view of the figures. It is perhaps not the women who are degraded but the viewer’s perception. Amer disrupts the typical directionality of looking at sexualized women and at artworks by playing with figuration and abstraction, turning back onto the viewer the discomfort of their obtrusive gaze. [End Page 78]

Anne Marie E Butler

ANNE MARIE E. BUTLER is assistant professor of art history and women, gender, and sexuality at Kalamazoo College. Her research investigates how intersections between surrealism, sexuality, and queerness in contemporary Tunisian art can subvert state authority and social norms. Contact:



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pp. 77-78
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