Both of these artists came to prominence with work that augmented or replaced traditional materials of painting in different ways. Yet their work is still regarded as painting, as commenting on the practice from different cultural perspectives. In some ways this is typical of the attention given to cultural differences in recent times, in other ways the emphasis on the materials of painting has been a strong feature of western painting over the last century. It is interesting to consider a little of this history and why these variations are now seen largely in terms of other cultures.
Ofili is noted (and notorious) for using elephant dung, glitter, photo-collage and coloured push-pins to build up his pictures, usually a single mythical or stereotypical figure drawn in bold curves. Amer typically sews an outline onto the canvas support in thin coloured threads and leaves remainders dangling, adds drawn outlines to parts or in layers in collaboration with fellow Egyptian Reza Farkhondeh. The subject is usually female nudes, presented in an intricate mesh through the cascade of threads. Ofili’s materials are linked to West African traditions and folk art, Amer’s to feminine labour and Islamic aversion to imagery and nudity. Yet the differences are far richer and more subtle than just cultural differences.
Some of the meaning has as much to do with contrasts within the western tradition. Experiments with materials go back at least as far as Picasso and Braque, mixing sand with paint and introducing collage elements to the picture. Towards the end of the century what counts as pigment, how it is applied and to what surfaces, extends in many directions. Figurative artists such as Anselm Kiefer and Julian Schnabel incorporate plant matter, metals or shattered crockery as surfaces, stress the resistance to standard drawing, express the artist’s determination and heroic independence.
By contrast Ofili or Amer seem timid and tidy. Where a Kiefer or Schnabel rides roughshod over a surface or materials, struggles for a grand allegorical or symbolic meaning, an Ofili or Amer adhere to more stylish drawing, Amer’s photo-traced or almost academic, Ofili’s curves owe as much to Matt Groening or Thurber as Miro or Klee, Both concentrate on archetypal or personified figures, reduce settings. So, materials in their work capture something else from pictures, express a more restrained, even passive attitude. For Ofili the combination of strict outlines and fillings of novel materials recalls naïve or folk art, the bright colours and simple collage applications of children’s classes or occupational therapy. So the attitude is the opposite of heroic, in many ways comic, and combined with traditional African allusions, more ambiguous and uneasy.
For Amer the combination of realist outlines and fine sewing refers less to embroidery or tapestry than to the quality of drawing. It literally embeds the line in the supporting fabric and ignores traditional unity. So the line is never quite completed or reconciled in this, variously redraws parts, leaves threads loose or dangling, literally and metaphorically, suggesting both release and abandonment. The thread thus expresses a deeper integration of line and surface yet its broken or partial success. The equivocation loses ‘the thread’ of the picture, provides as much of the meaning as feminine or Islamic practices, subtly advances the western dialogue with materials in painting.
Yet when both artists retreat from the dialogue, as when Ofili forsakes heterogeneous materials for standard paint, his curvilinear style seems weakened for it, needs a surface for contrast. Or when Amer applies her sewing to texts or inscriptions – these equally liner, yet the adherence or unity of threads not quite as moving or provocative for it. Both artists then struggle with a status between cultures, surrender either materials or pictures to preserve the balance, maintain the dialogue.
At the same time experiments with materials in painting had tended to lose impetus over the past twenty-five years or so. Painting has returned to standard materials. Perhaps the tendency had been replaced with greater use of installations, allowing artists to switch and compare mediums rather than compound them. Perhaps the pendulum will swing back from pictures to materials in painting, if installations are exhausted.