Representational painting is bang in fashion, but not much of it combines a charged subject matter with fruitful ambiguity and a persuasive and character-full technique. Mohammed Sami’s first institutional solo show, “The Point 0,” running throughout the year at Camden Art Centre, London, followed by the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea, East Sussex, delivers those requirements more persuasively than any painter emerging in recent years. I suspect the work would generate an underlying sense of menace even if we knew nothing about Sami’s background, but that knowledge feeds the mood decisively—“my paintings follow me like a shadow,” in his words. Sami was born in Iraq in 1984, where his talent was evident enough for him to paint murals for Saddam Hussein’s regime while he trained classically at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad. He lived there during a succession of conflicts before reaching a refugee camp in Sweden in 2007, then studying in Northern Ireland (BA, University of Ulster 2016) and settling in London (MA, Goldsmiths 2018).
Sami has spoken about how “as an artist, when you are a first-hand witness of extreme events, you need a strategy to slow down the stereotypical image of trauma and conflict in your work. Otherwise you may end up being a reporter of mimicking the collective memory—not to mention how some depictions might pass on a mild version of the trauma to society.” He avoids those problems in two ways. First, we don’t see people— just the occasional glimpse of their representation, such as a portrait of Saddam, distancing us in this way from the explicit in favour of the allusive. The paintings are of the ordinary, not the extraordinary, and substitute the historically lower categories of still lifes, interiors and landscapes for the grand narrative sweep of history painting. Second, he applies allusive strategies, which he traces to Arabic literature—puns, euphemisms and metonyms—to imbue the paintings with double meanings, which give him “the freedom not to choose one side of the coin.” Moreover, Sami doesn’t work from any documentary source material: we don’t know what is remembered, what is forgotten yet somehow returns and what isn’t autobiographical at all.
How does that ambiguity and indirectness operate in practice? The apparently simple The Parliament Room can be looked at in four ways. The title points to the chair backs of an empty political chamber. Yet the chairs function equally well as a cemetery of headstones. The viewer moves back and forth between the two possibilities, rather as when Salvador Dali applies his Paranoiac Critical method to the elephant-cum-swan. But where Dali’s painting is so precise it throws the attention onto his technical ingenuity rather than the reason for the ambiguity, Sami’s painting is more suggestive, and it’s the implications of the visual pun that take centre stage. Put The Parliament Room’s depictions together and you arrive at the likelihood, in an Iraqi context, that the absence of representatives indicates the lack of a functioning democracy, not just a recess; and that violence lies behind that. But Sami also makes us well aware that what we’re actually seeing is paint: the tomb chairs fade with semi-translucent ghostliness into the dark background, and one bleeds with could-be-accidental drips. We sense, then, four things: what we’re told to look for; what we actually see; what lies hidden behind appearances; and the paint that’s made us see those things.
Before we know the title, Jellyfish looks rather abstract, with the application of paint providing the primary focus. It then resolves into a hole in the ceiling—war damage, perhaps— with electrical wires dangling. The comparison with a jellyfish turns electric shocks into stings, and not only do the wires read as tentacles, so do apparently arbitrary trickle-downs of paint. What is natural and unnatural here?
“Refugee Camp” effects ambiguity in a different way, as—although Sami has lived in such a camp—the series with this title doesn’t actually show such camps. In this case the scene is both forbidding and hopeful: most of the massive canvas immerses the viewer in a towering grey rock face, tackled with enough textural brio to sustain close interest. Only a narrow top strip is occupied by houses, which glow with an orange light readable as hopeful or eerie. Refugee status is normalized to suggest that many people may have “refugee-type” experiences in their lives, and the difficulty of the journey to that status and the fact that it might substitute one set of problems for another are strikingly evoked.
Almost all of Sami’s paintings draw the viewer in through comparable means. Are those sandbags or flesh? War medals or flowers? The shadow of a plant or a spider? Weeping Walls III takes another tack by making explicit the absence implied in the show as a whole. We see a patch of murky diamond-patterned wallpaper but with a rectangle illumined. Is light shining through a window? No, the change in wallpaper indicates where a picture once hung, and the nail is still there. It would have been the mandatory photograph of Saddam, and his impact remains. ❚
“The Point 0” was exhibited at Camden Art Centre, London, from January 27, 2023, to May 28, 2023.
Paul Carey-Kent is a writer and curator based in New Forest, England; see paulsartworld.blogspot.com.