Islam is the new black: a conversation with Sarah Maple

0 Posted by - November 24, 2008 - Conversations, Features, Visual art

Since winning London’s 4 New Sensations competition in 2007, 23 year old painter/photographer Sarah Maple has been making headlines. The competition, sponsored by Charles Saatchi and London’s Channel 4, has given Maple a wide platform to continue to showcase her work. Her first solo exhibit entitled “This Artist Blows” is currently in viewing at the SaLon Gallery in London’s Notting Hill.

Maple has been compared heavily 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. Since the opening of the controversial show in October, the gallery has been vandalized, Maple and gallery staff have received threats, and SaLon is currently under police protective surveillance.

The piece which has caused the most controversy is the now infamous painting Haram, which depicts Maple in a headscarf cradling a tiny piglet. The work has created intense backlash from segments of the Muslim community who view the painting as a blasphemous critique of the Koran (which tells Muslims to abstain from eating pork). The international press has run away with the story, both praising Maple’s insight and discrediting her as a sensationalist attention-seeker.

Other pieces include: 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, where 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’ tee could be responsible for offending so many people.

Good and funny Muslims

Art Threat: So, you won the 4 New Sensations competition last year, how did that change your career?

Sarah Maple: It’s really good, because the moment anyone says Charles Saatchi everyone’s like: ‘Oooooohhh!’ So it was really good. People were interested in my work kind of from the moment I got nominated and it got into the paper.

Islam is the New Black

Islam is the New Black

Yeah, they kind of picked you out right away as the one to watch.

Yeah, and then I sort of went on to win it, which was pretty good. It was really exciting. I wasn’t expecting to get something like that.

So I know you look extensively at gender, sexuality and religion in your art, can you talk a little about how those themes play into your work?

I think because they’re the things that mean the most to me; that affect my life. These kinds of issues—they’ve 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 it 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.

I’ve read that you talk 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 other Muslims, they look at the religion very differently than I do. And what I perceive to be a good Muslim isn’t what other people perceived. That’s when I started questioning it. Not the religion but the way people interpreted it and practiced it.

I Love Orgasms

I Love Orgasms

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.

Courting controversy

Do you have a favourite piece of yours 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, ‘cuz 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, you know, 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 really 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.

I think the media has had a tendency to portray your work as being seen negatively by the Muslim community at large? Do you think that’s true? I feel like you must be getting positive feedback too?

Yeah. 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 they 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 kind of debating more about the religion and the culture. And I think it’s really good, that people are actually discussing the religion now. 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.

I feel like it must be frustrating. If you see a lot of the mainstream media picking it up saying: ‘The gallery got vandalized’, and all these other negative things. But you don’t see as much: ‘Hey, look, this is amazing! Look at what this can achieve!”

Yeah. And I get a lot of emails from people saying: ‘Why have you done this?’ and that’s really frustrating. I can’t reply to every single one, and I think: ‘Oh God, how many people have got it wrong?’ And I can’t change their minds, because it’s physically impossible for me to reply to every single person, and I think as well, that some people don’t want their minds changed.

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. I think so. And I think that 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.

And trying to ‘get’ Sarah Maple is truly something worth doing. The show is witty, poignant and incredibly relevant to understanding Western multiculturalism. Maple might not be purposely trying to ruffle any feathers, but in the current culture we live in, where European xenophobia is rising, and there is an increasingly anti-Muslim attitude that dominates mainstream discourse; just being a minority in the West can often seem problematic, and as Maple rightly points out—the majority of it is unfounded. People could all benefit from humanizing those that they don’t fully understand. The world needs a little more Sarah Maple, and from the looks of her wildly growing success, more is on the way.

For more of Sarah Maple’s work check out her website or her MySpace page.

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