People often think that Sarah Maple is trying to be offensive with her Islamic based art. This is a huge misconception as she is Muslim herself and would not want to offend her own faith. With her work she reveals the confusion that many young Muslims face within the context of contemporary western society. This study offers the viewer 'food for thought' and is influenced by the quest to discover and question 'Identity'.
In her work she questions if it is possible to be a 'good' Muslim in the West; especially if you are mixed race and from two contrasting cultural backgrounds like she is. Islam is indeed a way of life. But what do modern British Muslims do surrounded by both influences? Which lifestyle do they choose? Or can the two be fused?
Brian Sherwin: Sarah, can you tell our readers about your early experiences with art? When did you first realize that you wanted to pursue art? Also, where did you study art? Who are your mentors... your influences?
Sarah Maple: Well the first time I ever became interested in art was when I was about four or five years old. I pulled out the drawer from underneath my bed and found hundreds and hundreds of drawings my Mother had done of portraits. I thought 'fuck me, these are amazing' (I'm sure i didn't swear at that age, but you get what I mean!). I used to sneakily look in there all the time, I found them utterly amazing. And I think this was where my fascination with the portrait came from.
I started drawing portraits all the time. To this day I am still in love with portraits. I studied art at Kingston. Although I learnt a hell of a lot at art school I found it a difficult experience and very pleased to have left. My influence is mainly contemporary culture, like rock n roll, fashion, the news, all that jazz. I love people who are off the rails or are slightly wrong like Kate Moss. I love those people who don't care and just do what they like and take a risk. A great example of this was Rufus Wainwright at Glastonbury this year. I also love people who are genuine and speak from the heart, even if it's really depressing, that's why I love the Smiths and they are always in my work.
Identity is a huge theme to me, it's fascinating - not only in terms of who we actually are - but also in terms of how we portray ourselves - even if it's a false image - which is even more interesting.
Do you remember how when Geri Halliwell left the Spice girls she was so adamant to portray she wasn't the perceived image of 'Ginger Spice'. Like she did that documentary, started wearing suits and all that. I always found that amazing how she'd gone to great lengths to be seen in one way to make the spice girls a success, then was desperate to show her true self which unfortunately for her was much less interesting than Ginger.
Debbie Harry is my ultimate icon. I went to the hairdresser last week and said 'give me a late seventies Debbie Harry'. 'Ok!' she said. Now I look a bit silly. I will never accept a half Asian girl cannot pull off a Blondie look.
BS: In the past you were primarily a painter. However in 2007 you started to take photographs. You have stated that your ideas have flourished since picking up the camera and that photography is how you see your art progressing in the future. That must have been a big decision. Why has photography had such an impact on you? Do you plan to combine painting with photography at some point?
SM: Before starting photography this year I was doing all these painted self portraits in late 2006 (e.g 'Bananarama' ' self portrait with my mother's headscarf and the breast of Kate Moss'). Someone said to me that if I wasn't going to use the paint as a medium to express my concepts, then there was no point in painting, I may as well have just taken photographs.
This really got to me because I knew they were right. I always thought I was a painter and that was it. I reluctantly hired a camera to spend a couple of weeks doing photography. All of a sudden just having this new medium seemed to open up the flood gates and all these ideas came out. Since then it's been non-stop!
BS: Sarah, you have experienced a bit of controversy over your Islamic based art. Many do not seem to understand that you are a Muslim... and that you are attempting to reveal the distorted view that many Muslims have of their faith and culture within the context of western society. Would you like to clear the air with this interview? Go into detail about what exactly you are striving to do and why it is important for you to do it.
SM: My work with Islamic themes comes from my own experience of being mixed race. because of cultural and religious clashes I think it's very hard to mix east and west. I think many Muslims get it so confused, for example I know people who will celebrate Eid by getting pissed, it's such a contradiction! I suppose I get fed up with the judgment' I feel is put on me by other Muslims who may see me as substandard because I don't pray or cover myself. This is reflected in my work.
The best example of this is my piece 'White Girl' (which is a derogatory term I discovered is used amongst Muslims for a non-Muslim or a 'bad' Muslim) I made this after feeling angry when speaking to an old Muslim friend about my art.
BS: Your work is very focused on examining the human condition. Have you studied psychology... or do you base your work simply on your personal observations of society? If the study of psychology does play a role in your work... which psychologist have influenced you? What theories?
SM: The human condition is fascinating to me. This is what I mean by how I love people who speak from the heart. Human behavior and human passions - good and bad - are incredible. I am very interested in psychology but have never studied it.
BS: There also seems to be a feminist quality to some of your work in that they show the power that a Muslim woman can have over her own body. For example, in your self-portrait painting, Bananarama, you are dressed in traditional Muslim clothing. In your hand you hold a banana- which you are gently placing inside your mouth. This piece is obviously sexually suggestive... is this a charge for Muslim women to have the same sexual freedoms that women in western society have? Or is it simply meant to reveal desires that are sometimes hidden... or locked away by faith?
SM: The latter. More like desires or sins that are hidden. For example, when I was younger and I'd see a Muslim person wearing a headscarf I always used to think 'Wow they must be so good and religious'. But then I realized this isn't the case.
Just because you look the part doesn't mean you act the part. It doesn't make them a better Muslim than me. This is what my piece 'salat' is about. It's about the perception of Muslims and what makes a 'good' Muslim - those layers or truths that are hidden underneath.
BS: Your piece, Signs, also seems to have a feminist quality to it. The piece depicts three different versions of you: Traditional, Sexual, and Professional. These three images come together to demand questions about gender equality in the workforce and in society as a whole. You've mentioned that your work is mostly focused on the Muslim female experience. However, would you say that images like this set a universal message as to how women are seen within the context of society... and the challenges they face equally no matter what their background is? The fact that women are often held back due to their sex...
SM: Yes. When I thought up this work it was because I was thinking about how some men gain respect for just being men. Like an automatic advantage. It's like that in the Asian culture- the man is often treated like a king! But then I felt a little of this attitude was going on in art school- subconsciously.
I thought to myself 'if I want to be an artist, it would be much better if I was a man' - like this instant respect. And in this work I am acknowledging this. I know I am guilty of it too - most of my favorite people are men. It would be great to have a penis!
BS: One interesting aspect of your work is the fact that it deals with very serious issues in a humorous manner. Your conceptual ideas reveal a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek approach that is very playful. Why do you think so many people miss the humor in your work?
SM: I think it's because they think I am taking the piss in a spiteful way, which I'm not. I just think humour is the ultimate way to make a point and that's why my work is very light hearted. But saying this I think it has to be an intelligent joke- not just prattling around for the sake of it. I like a clever joke that makes you think and that is what I aim to do.
One person wrote to me in a rage about my work and they didn't even realise I was Muslim. I have no respect for people like that because what's the point in taking the time to write to someone to insult them, but not take the time to first find out why I'm doing what I'm doing. Surely if it had offended them so much they would have clicked on my art statement to see what I had to say for myself.
That is the only case of complaint though, so far people have been so supportive of me which I really appreciate.
BS: Sarah, you are going to be exhibiting with the Saatchi Gallery, correct? I understand that you are one of 20 shortlisted students who have been invited to show work in an exhibition in London during the week of the Frieze Art Fair. Out of the 20, four winners will be selected to make a work of art in response to the theme: THE WORLD IN 25 YEARS. The show is sponsored by The Saatchi Gallery and Channel 4... it is called 4 New Sensations. Can you tell our readers how you found out that you had been selected as one of the 20? Also, if you end up being a finalist... what do you plan to do for the 'THE WORLD IN 25 YEARS' piece? Have you been mapping out what you will do... or are you just letting things ride for now, so to speak?
SM: Well I am very excited to tell you that I am one of the final four. I haven't been able to tell any local press etc yet because of various arrangements Saatchi have. But it's extremely exciting indeed.
My work is going to be a poster campaign - four posters in total. But I can't reveal anything until the work is done or it'll ruin the fun!
BS: Have you sought gallery representation yet?
SM: Not exactly. I'm talking to people but nothing has materialised just yet. It's very early on in my career and I want to agree on the right arrangement for me at this point.
BS: Finally, is there anything else you would like to say about your art or the artworld?
SM: It's all very 'mwah mwah lovely darling' isn't it! It's a shame I can't take advantage of all the free wine at private views!
I hope that you have enjoyed my interview with Sarah Maple. You can view more of Sarah's art by visiting her website: www.sarahmaple.com
Take care, Stay true,