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This artist blows

The young British Muslim artist Sarah Maple has been at the centre of controversy since first bursting onto the art scene at the end of 2007. Interview by Anikka Weerasinghe

March 23, 2009
12 min read

Since winning the inaugural New Sensations competition for upcoming artists in 2007, 24-year-old painter/photographer Sarah Maple has been making headlines. The competition, sponsored by Charles Saatchi and Channel 4, gave Maple a wide platform to continue to showcase her work. Her first solo exhibition, entitled ‘This Artist Blows’, was displayed at the SaLon Gallery in London’s Notting Hill towards the end of 2008.

Maple has been compared to one of Saatchi’s most famed discoveries, Tracy Emin, as her work provocatively and honestly explores themes of sexuality, feminism, religion and culture through the lens of a woman investigating her British-Muslim identity. After the opening of her controversial show last year, the gallery was vandalised, Maple and gallery staff received threats and SaLon was put under police protective surveillance.

The piece that caused the most controversy was the painting Haram, which depicts Maple in a headscarf cradling a tiny piglet. The work was condemned as blasphemous by sections of the Muslim community, while the international media leapt on the story, simultaneously praising Maple’s insight and discrediting her as a sensationalist attention-seeker.

Other pieces in the SaLon exhibition included a painting of a woman, presumably Maple, in a burqa wearing a button on her chest proclaiming ‘I love orgasms’ and a series of photographs entitled Salat, in which Maple is pictured in daily prayer. In some photos she wears a headscarf, in some she is without, and throughout the series are pictures of her wearing costume masks or bunny ears – all as if to question the ritual’s meaning and purpose.

I was able to sit down with Sarah Maple to discuss her art, the controversy surrounding it, and what it feels like trying to be a ‘good Muslim in the west’. Sitting in front of Maple at SaLon, with her Haram piece looming over us, I found myself questioning how this modest young woman with a pink-lucite ‘MAPLE’ necklace and a baby blue ‘Smiths’ t-shirt could be responsible for offending so many people.

You look extensively at gender, sexuality and religion in your art. Can you talk a little about how those themes play into your work?

They’re the things that mean the most to me; that affect my life. These kinds of issues have made me what I am, I suppose. It’s natural for me discuss them. Because a lot of my work is quite cathartic it gives me the opportunity to explore the sorts of things I wouldn’t explore in my actual life. I can use art as an outlet – especially with sexuality.

Do you find that your western/Muslim identities battle for your attention? Or do you feel like you’ve found harmony for them now?

I do feel like they’re in harmony now. But when I was growing up it was more of an issue for me. Obviously growing up in the south of England it was very white with not very many Muslims. The only Muslims I knew were my own family, and I think that this was a huge part of how I feel about it now. I didn’t feel like I fit in at all. And I didn’t really, but I wanted to. I wanted to explore that cultural side, but I never got to. And I think that when I did meet other Muslim people it was like I had grown up so much that I no longer fit in. I couldn’t even fit in if I tried.

You’ve talked about being a ‘good Muslim in the west’ and wanting to fuse those two identities together. Do you think it can it be done?

That’s the main thing in my work-I just don’t know. I think I always believed that it could, and then I suppose from looking at other Muslims and speaking to them, they look at the religion very differently than I do. And what I perceive to be a good Muslim isn’t what other people perceive. That’s when I started questioning it. Not the religion but the way people interpreted it and practiced it.

I get the sense from talking to young Muslims here that there’s a big disconnect as to what people, especially women, are expected to do in public versus how they act in private. I feel like I see that a lot in your art – with I Love Orgasms, for example. It seems as though you play with putting these roles together.

Yeah. It’s definitely about what you see on the outside, and what’s actually on the inside. And I think it’s not about displaying and showing everyone that I can wear a hijab, so I’m a good Muslim. It’s about what you believe in your heart, I think. But you know many people would disagree with that, so …

Was humour always a goal of your work?

Yeah, definitely. I was always interested in comedy. When I was growing up, my brother and I always watched sitcoms together. And I just love toilet humour and silly things like that, and I think I approach my work in that way. I approach very serious things in a really humorous and lighthearted way. I think that it’s a good way to get the message across, but I also think that in a way it has been detrimental. A lot of people think that I’m mocking when that’s not my aim. And people also think that I’m not taking the subject seriously when it’s a very serious subject. But I’ve approached things in a tongue-in-cheek way, and some people can’t grasp that.

Do you have a favourite piece right now? Or a least favourite one?

This is my least favourite [pointing at Haram], because it’s given me hassle. I like the way that I’ve painted it, but I think my favourite ones are Islam is the new Black and Tony Blair [entitled Don’t Mention the War]. I really like Tony.

Did you think that Haram would cause so much controversy?

Not really. I thought it would be more that one [pointing to the Salat piece]. And it’s crazy how people have reacted to it, because I suppose that I didn’t think people would care.

What do you think it is about the work that stirs up so much emotion?

I think people think I’m doing it deliberately just to try and get attention, or just to piss people off or something, and it’s not that. When you describe the image it sounds worse than what it is. When you actually look at it you kind of get more of the feel of what it’s about. I suppose the reaction highlights the point of it. Because the point of it is, I was thinking about how people think the pig is a really hated thing, and Muslims are brought up to hate pigs and find them really offensive in every way. But the Koran just says don’t eat pork, it doesn’t say anything about hating the animal because it’s still a creature of God, you know? And so I was kind of playing on that. Again it’s a comment on the difference between culture and religion and people get the two confused, I think.

The media has tended to portray your work as being seen negatively by the Muslim community at large? Do you think that’s true? Are you getting positive feedback too?

It’s very 50-50. I get a lot of emails that are really positive as well. But I usually skip those, and go right to the horrible ones. A lot of people say they relate to me, which is really good. But the better emails are the ones when they say: ‘I looked at it and I didn’t like it, but then had a look again and now I like it.’ Which makes me think that people have actually considered it, and that’s really good. I really like that.

But also what’s good is that on Facebook there’s this group called ‘I hate Sarah Maple’ and I saw it and was like: ‘Oh my God!’ And at first people were saying, ‘Oh she’s a slut’ – really horrible things. One said ‘I want to strangle the bitch’ or something. It was really bad.

But then my fans started commenting, and started talking about the religion, and people were arguing back. It’s now developed on from that initial ‘I hate Sarah’ to debating more about the religion and the culture. So that’s a good outcome.

Do you think the controversy surrounding your work is going to help open dialogue between western and Muslim cultures? Or in the Muslim community in general?

I really hope so. I really would like that, but then I don’t want it to become a fight between ‘I’m right’ and ‘You’re wrong’. I don’t want to cause more problems. It would be nice if people looked at my work and thought: ‘You know, Muslims aren’t all bombers and psychos.’ You know, that’s what people think. We’re not all like that. So it’s from that perspective as well. People can see Muslims in a lighthearted way.

Do you think that art can change the world?

Hmm … Yes. I think so. Yeah.

In a big way? In a little way?

In a big way. Art is seen as something really elitist, isn’t it? People think: ‘I don’t know anything about art.’ I want to make art for everyone, so people don’t think: ‘Oh, it’s above me’ or ‘I don’t get it’. I think anyone can have a go at getting this.

Does the business side of the art world ever get in the way of making your art? Or does the system fuel it?

I find the business side really difficult. It’s such a different thing from the creativity. I’m glad I’ve got people here that can kind of do that more for me. It’s interesting how the art is sort of now more about pricing and investing. The more expensive it is the more validation it gets. I just think it’s bizarre. It never used to be like that.

Do you have different reasons for using different media?

I think the good thing about taking up photography was that it helped me to expel my ideas a lot quicker. And also I’ve started to use photography like a sketch book, so it’s helped me to come up with ideas. So I don’t draw anymore. I just take pictures of things. Also, a lot of it is gut instinct. So with this one [pointing at Haram] I was going to take it as a photograph, and it didn’t feel right. I thought it would be much more powerful as a painting.

Tracy Emin is the big name that comes up when people are talking about you. But your work reminds me a lot of Cindy Sherman’s look at performance. Why do you like self-portraits so much?

Yeah, it’s funny, the Cindy Sherman thing because everyone says Cindy Sherman to me and I’ve never looked at her work. I know of her because everyone keeps saying Cindy Sherman, Cindy Sherman. So I’ve looked at her and now I quite like it. People think I’m trying to copy her, but I’m not. I’m not really even familiar with her work.

It felt natural to use myself in the work because it’s about me, essentially, even though it reflects on wider political issues. But it’s essentially me and my life. It feels natural to use myself in the images. And it’s important to point out that it is me, because a lot of people just say ‘Oh you’re using a woman in a hijab.’ But no, it’s me. I’m talking about myself.

What else influences you?

Loads of things. Least of all art. I think everything. My friends. Things that people just say randomly, and I’ll pick up on something in conversations, comedy, music.

What kind of music?

I really like the Smiths [pointing to her Smiths t-shirt], Patrick Wolf, I really like people that have really raw talent. That’s really exciting. I like Debbie Harry. People like that.

What’s next? What can we expect from you in the coming months?

Initially I was going to move on to more works with feminism. And then, I think because of all this – this whole offence thing – how it’s become such a huge thing, it will influence the work I make. So I think the work will also be about this experience.

Anikka Weerasinghe is a Canadian freelance writer currently living in the UK. She writes for art and politics blog Art Threat, which first published a version of this interview.

Sarah Maple graduated from Kingston University in 2007 and is currently based in Brighton. Her website is at www.sarahmaple.com

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