Misunderstood, maligned, and massively cool: Miss Sarah Maple
She looks like a Rolling Stone, digs the Smiths, and wishes she had a penis so she could ‘fuck you and then steal your job’. I think she’s quite cool, but – believe it or not – there are others who’d rather see her dead. Some of Sarah’s portraits, most notably those of her smoking like a badass in a white hijab, have been doing the rounds on the Internet for quite some time. Oftentimes they are taken out of context, like Rumi poems gone wrong in a bookstore calendar; and, being the beast of urgency it is loved and loathed for, social media hasn’t given much space for a bit of much-needed background information. This, in addition to the artist’s withdrawn nature and hesitancy to engage with her online audiences, is perhaps why she’s been branded a blasphemer, heretic, and overall no-do-gooder (is that even a term?). Some might be surprised to discover that, contrary to the impression some of her pieces may give, Sarah has never intended to take a jab at religion, and that there are so many other dimensions of her work and outlook – her near-militant feminism and hybrid Iranian-English identity, for example – that are often overshadowed by holier-than-thou discourse.
Anyway … as Sarah’s got a fab new book out – You Could Have Done This – I thought I’d use that as an excuse to get to know the spunky girl behind the shaggy bangs.
Sarah! You’ve mentioned that you found it difficult to fit into your surroundings growing up in southern England. Why?
At the time (and even to an extent now), the place I grew up in was completely white. When I went to learn to read the Koran, there were about five children in the class and two of them were my siblings! My mum remembers me asking as a child if we were ‘the only Muslims in the world’ – hah! I think it was difficult because I was different, but still sort of looked like most people, as I’m white. I have mixed parents: my mum is a Muslim who was born in Kenya (but is of Iranian heritage), and my dad is white British, so there was that conflict in the home, too – completely different cultures under one roof. When I was 11, my mum sent us all to Catholic school, because there weren’t any Muslim schools, and she wanted us to have a religious influence. My friends call me their favourite Catholic Muslim! I think I felt guilty about having any connection to my British side.
It was only as an adult that someone said to me, ‘You are half and half, and it’s okay to embrace British culture’. I began to think about how a lot of British Muslim kids could get messed up over it, as there is the pressure from family to stick with culture and religion; but you’re surrounded by the opposite of that. I think a lot of Muslim kids live a double life, and that’s why in a lot of my work I mix the two. I enjoy that juxtaposition of imagery reflecting how absurd it is. I am currently researching this for my next body of work, and how it relates to extremism.
How does it relate to extremism, in your opinion?
I think there are possibly some young and vulnerable adults who aren’t sure of their place in the world, and are torn between two cultures, and I think a lot of them don’t have a true understanding of Islam. And identity is so important; I think a sense of identity has a lot to do with it as well.
It’s interesting that you’ve talked in the past of wanting to be a ‘good Muslim’, as many of your detractors feel you’re anti-Islam.
That is the assumption, yes! And I can understand it to a degree. Maybe if I saw this work offhand I’d think I was taking the piss out of Islam. Many people don’t actually realise I was raised as a Muslim. I was never having a go at the religion itself; I was more frustrated at the hypocrisy of some Muslims. I have a different perspective now as the world is changing, and I feel differently about religion. Even though I am a Muslim, I still don’t feel I know enough. I have only read the Koran in Arabic – a language I can’t speak! And other things I’ve learnt have been passed down to me from my family. I don’t actually have my own understanding, and I think that is the truth for many British Muslims. For my new body of work, I am starting to research for myself and see what comes from that.
Speaking of detractors … who are the people that want to kill you? Or is this all in the past now?
I’m not sure. I sometimes find the cat looking at me in a funny way though …
Do you have anything to say to them?
Please don’t! I’m nice!
But how do you deal with all the hate mail you receive? I’ve personally found that the ‘delete’ key can be a beautiful thing.
I would be lying if I said it didn’t rile me up a bit; I do take things personally. I haven’t had any in a while, though I may get some with my next show, as I think it will press some buttons. I think I will get some hate from a whole new community of people, which will be interesting! I suppose it’s to be expected. I wonder how artists back in the day would have coped with social media. I’m not sure how helpful it is with all these voices in your ear … I try and keep off of it as much as I can now so I can concentrate on my work – otherwise you end up making nothing.
Definitely. Now, what’s the funniest comment you’ve ever received? I mean funny in a bad way, of course … as in, so bad, it’s funny.
Oh my God – so many! And I’m often laughing incredulously at comments online. One that has stuck to me is from last year, a response to my Anti-Rape Cloak series. Someone said, ‘With a face like that, who would want to rape her?’ But my all-time favourite, which I often use in my biography, is, ‘Sarah Maple is only successful for being attractive and Muslim’. That one made me chuckle.
Hey, at least the individual called you attractive, unlike the other one. To change the subject – you’re often compared to Tracey Emin, and have even poked fun at the whole situation in an artwork. Has she had anything to say about all of this?
Hah! Well, a few years ago she mentioned me as an artist to look out for in an interview, which was extremely exciting for me. That’s all I know … It’s funny, because our work isn’t really similar at all (although I do really like a lot of it), but often the majority of people can’t think of any other contemporary female artists, unfortunately!
So who should they be thinking of, then?
Barbara Kruger, Jenny Holzer, Gillian Wearing, Marlene Dumas, Sonya Boyce, Anthea Hamilton, Sarah Lucas, Paula Rego … These are a few of my faves, who are obviously classics!
Yeah, the Lucas reference is kind of in-your-face. I must admit I’m quite relieved to hear you say this; our Tumblr feed is overflowing with images of Frida Kahlo! What about Iranian artists? Have there been any who have influenced you?
I love Shadi Ghadirian – her work is so brilliant and clever. The Like Everyday series was the kind of work where you’re like, Damn, I wish I’d thought of that! It’s just so funny and bold, and I love when artists use humour. There’s also Shirin Neshat, of course, and Sara Rahbar, who does incredible textile work. Such beautiful stuff!
And the whole armpit hair business … was that a nod to Patti Smith, or am I getting carried away?
I love Patti, but that wasn’t a Patti reference!
It was worth a try. Now Sarah, there are quite a few Iranians of mixed heritage working in the diaspora, whose works are often referenced when talking about contemporary Iranian art. You seem to be outside these circles, though; is it intentional, or have things just turned out that way?
I think it’s just turned out that way because I always felt I couldn’t claim to be Iranian, as my mother was born in Kenya, and her mother was born in India; but the family line of both of my great-grandparents is Iranian. I wasn’t sure what I was, so I sort of kept quiet about it, until recently. I’m not sure if I would be recognised as an Iranian artist now! It also doesn’t help that people seem to think I’m Turkish. It’s the whole Emin link!
… I don’t regret anything, because I’ve made my art with integrity and not with any malice. The only problem with having difficult backlash like I have is that you are sort of never the same.
Yeah, and I guess you’re similar in that respect. I mean, she’s half-Cypriot Turkish, but you don’t really hear her being called a ‘Turkish artist’. It has to do with the nature of one’s work and how they identify as an artist, I guess. But speaking of Iranians – what have they had to say about your work?
Iranians are always supportive, and seem proud I have Iranian roots! I told my mum that Iranians like my work, and she said, ‘Yeah, yeah, but Iranians aren’t that religious’. Hah!
That reminds me of a quote by Charles James Wills I used in a recent piece about the history of wine in Iran: ‘The people were a laughing, careless set, devoid of fanaticism, having indeed very little religion’. OK. Tell me about this new book of yours … You Could Have Done This.
It’s my first book of selected work up until 2015. It came out last year (published by KochxBos Books in Amsterdam), and was a very proud moment for me. There is something special about a book. I wondered how I would even fill it, as I didn’t realise just how much I’d made over the years. The title is from a piece of mine called You Could Have Done This. It seemed fitting.
Could have done what?
It was a joke about people who look at contemporary art and go, ‘I could have done that’, which always makes me laugh.
Yeah, you kind of feel that way when you see Bowie-as-Warhol pissing on his prints in Basquiat: I could have done that! But I didn’t. But to get back to the book – there’s a painting in there … Self-Portrait with my Cat and Grandparents. I know it’s very special to you. Why is that?
Yes. I’ve kept it, and it’s hung up in my house. I started this painting of me and my cat, just to have something to paint, because I had an upcoming show and was really stuck. While I was painting it, my grandmother passed away, which was a huge shock to the whole family, and that made me rethink a lot of things. I also learnt a lot about my grandfather, who passed away when my mum was 10, so I never met him. I had always imagined him being this religious and pious man, but then heard from the family that he had been a bit of a rebel – which pleased me a great deal! I almost felt a sense of relief. There is definitely a rebellious side to my family; even my mum marrying my white British father was a massive deal in the seventies.
So, the painting evolved into one about my background. It is a very traditional portrait with little symbols. The colours are of the Iranian flag, my cat is Persian, and I included the cigarette to symbolise my grandfather and the bracelets my grandmother wore every day. It is very different from my other work … it’s even making me feel emotional now.
I’d have never picked up on the colours … thank you for those insights; and enough about you – let’s talk about me. You say that inaction is a weapon of mass destruction, and I feel that I, as a viewer of your work, should be (and could be) doing something right now. What do you want me to do? I know you don’t want me to dissect your work using ‘artspeak’, and I’m pretty sure you don’t any more bricks flying through the window.
I’m not saying we have to all be out there with banners and protest; but I think in small ways, we can be ‘active’, like calling someone out on something. It may seem like a small thing, but I think small acts can create a cultural shift in some way. Even using social media to spread news and promote causes – things like that! I know we can’t all dedicate our time to activism, but it’s really easy now to do small things, which can really help.
Small things, like running out onto the street chanting, ‘The Queen is dead, boys’ and ‘Sarah for Prime Minister’, right?
Yes! Especially the latter. Let’s make some noise!
I’ve marked that on my to-do list. Now, you’ve said a number of times that if you could have done things differently, you might not have done certain things. Do you still have any regrets?
I’ve thought about this a lot, but no – I don’t have any regrets. When I made controversial work, I wasn’t doing it just for the sake of doing it; I wanted to say something, and was reacting to my own personal life experiences. I 100% stand by my work, and now that I’m older feel even more strongly about it. My only regrets [have to do with] work still lurking on Google Images that I think aren’t as good, and that I wish could vanish! But no, I don’t regret anything, because I’ve made my art with integrity and not with any malice. Sometimes difficult things have to be said. The only problem with having difficult backlash like I have is that you are sort of never the same. I had this great naivety before and a sense of freedom, which are great for an artist. Now I know people are watching, a fact that did ‘quiet’ me for a bit … but I’m back again now and ready to make more bold work.
The opposite of a feminist is an arsehole. What’s the opposite of a REORIENT fan?
Ouch. Last question … Can I have that Smiths t-shirt of yours?
No. No way. You’ve gone too far now …
Sarah Maple’s ‘You Could Have Done This’ is available via her website.
Cover image: Fighting Fire with Fire No. 2 (detail).