Mohammed Sami: ‘We can‘t move forward without the power of the past‘
Memory and metaphor and shadow and light prove essential elements in the atmospheric paintings of Baghdad-born, London-based artist Mohammed Sami.
A version of this article first appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Art Quarterly, the magazine of Art Fund.
Who is Mohammed Sami?
In Mohammed Sami’s paintings, the human figure is alluded to through bundled and huddled shapes, shadows and old posters, but never shown directly. Between soaring planes of colour in richly textured paint, he evokes shattered domestic interiors, the corrupt splendour of palaces and the informal structures of war and its aftermath.
Born in Iraq in 1984, Sami studied at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad before emigrating to Sweden in 2007. Since completing his studies in the UK – first at Ulster University, then at Goldsmiths College in London – Sami’s charged, atmospheric paintings have been selected for prestigious survey exhibitions, among them the 58th Carnegie International in Pittsburgh, ‘Mixing it Up: Painting Today’ at Hayward Gallery, London, in 2021 and ‘The London Open 2022’ at Whitechapel Gallery.
Drawing on his experience growing up through periods of conflict, and later as a refugee in Sweden, Sami’s exhibition at London’s Camden Art Centre exhibition explores the complex phenomenon of recollection, and how unexpected details in everyday life might trigger the return of repressed memory.
Hettie Judah: Does the exhibition at Camden Art Centre have a unifying theme, or is it an overview?
Mohammed Sami: It is mainly new work. But a lot of paintings that I’ve made over the last 10 years were sold and never shown, so there are about five important earlier paintings that we are showing in addition to the new works.
HJ: How are you grouping the works?
MS: Because I consider myself a conceptual painter, you will not find connections according to colours, or compositions. My work is about belated memory, or belated response to memory. In this exhibition, you’re going to encounter five or six series: there are interior spaces, everyday objects, there is light and shadow, and landscapes. It’s not easy to categorise the subject matter until you spend some time with the paintings, as well as examining their titles, and asking the identity of the artist.
HJ: I’m interested that you describe yourself as a conceptual painter – your works also show very evident formal concerns.
MS: It’s both, because they are connected. Formal representation is the main trap with which I draw viewers into my work. There must be some triggers, to bring them in, at which point they raise the following question: ‘Why is Mohammed, from Iraq, a Muslim guy who’s lived in several places, and who left the country in 2007, painting landscapes?’ You will not get the answer easily unless you consult other elements, such as the title, which [for example] suggests that this is a refugee camp. Then you gradually land at your conclusion. This is what I call conceptual painting.
HJ: Is it important that people have some context for the paintings, that they are aware of the title, and know a little about you?
MS: People interpret my artworks differently. For example, this painting [on the studio wall] is one of the ongoing Refugee Camp series. Some people understand Refugee Camp as: ‘I live with my children and my partner and I feel alienated, like my house is a refugee camp.’ This is how the subject matter might articulate in a Western view. As I’m a Middle Eastern artist, a lot of people expect to see typical traumatic depictions. Once I’d learned about the psychological aspect of memory, my art tended to focus on quite banal things. In the work Desert Storm (2021) you’re looking through the window of a house in a seemingly abstract painting. Gradually you realise the desert storm is inside the house. In this way, I use metaphor to articulate the past – personal and collective memory.
HJ: How did you start working with memory?
MS: All of us depend on our memory. We can’t move forward without the power of the past, and sometimes we move backwards: some of us are stuck in memory. Memories do not return as we expect, as palm trees or people struggling in the street, or something like that. Returning memories masquerade in light and shadow, and windows, or in some everyday object. They don’t reveal themselves easily, and this is what makes them interesting. It’s not important to understand where this place is, what it is, or whether you have really had this experience, so long as we’re enjoying the mixture: this uncertain remembering.
HJ: Would it be useful to use a term like ‘déjà vu’ to describe this experience?
MS: I think more of triggers. For example, if we look at Weeping Walls (2022), an entire narrative springs from it. There’s a trace of an image on the wall: whose was this image? In The Statue (2022), a shadow of a building reflects or strikes the other building. I’m not sure if I was looking at the shadow of a human figure trying to jump from a building, or a statue. Understand that I came from a country filled with statues of a dictator. I try not to guide the viewers to the ‘direct’ answer in my work. My work mainly raises questions.
HJ: Are the compositions informed by archival research at all?
MS: I received five years of classical training at the Institution of Fine Arts in Baghdad from 2000 to 2005. It was intensive: great training that frees you to work with any type of formal representation and any narrative. I’ve not used photographs as a starting point. I read a lot. Arabic literature is very similar to my work. When you read something, you can’t believe how you came from a country like Iraq, or Palestine, or Lebanon, and you speak about the air in the mountains. The writers use euphemism or metonymy as a strategy: they use metaphorical language to set you free from one-way narrative. That’s why Arabic literature was free for a long time. The metonymy and euphemism were born to escape punishment from the authorities. Visual arts, in the Middle East, were always exposed to the pressure of the authorities. You had to be clear, explicit, in order to let them understand your intentions.
HJ: Which is completely different from what you’re doing.
MS: Exactly, yes. But I was a propaganda artist. I painted huge murals in my school, in order to pass mathematics and English, because I was dyslexic. When I went to Northern Ireland to complete my undergraduate studies and I looked at the political murals, I understood a lot. Most contemporary artists, nowadays, they’re making propaganda. Even artists here in London, subconsciously, work with ideologies. I can’t touch the philosophy behind their work.
HJ: For me, a lot of the power of your work comes through feeling and atmosphere.
MS: To be a painter, you need to understand the limitation and the capacity of painting as a practice. Since the invention of photographs and the moving image, the capacity of painting has shrunk significantly. You don’t have much left to do. Which might be unpleasant for many painters, but it’s good for me, because it gives me the opportunity to articulate what is left in the elements of paintings: objects, atmosphere, things you can’t depict very easily in photography or film. This is one of the reasons there are no figures in my work.
HJ: There are no figures, but often, there are symbolic objects – rolled carpets or bundled shapes – that seem to stand in for figures?
MS: In Skin (2022), for example, the belated response to these carpets can be different: there’s a sense of violence, or blood or guts, but you are never able to identify where it is. The sensation is as if you have seen this image of violence, or something like it before, but you are not able to say: ‘Yes, in this part, there’s blood.’ When you leave your motherland for more than 15 years, the image will never return intact as before: it will always be combined or attached to different sensations.
HJ: How do paintings develop? Do you have a drawing practice?
MS: I don’t do drawings. How would you turn this massive painting, with all its complexity, into a drawing? I wait for five years, with each idea. Every day, when I eat, when I meet people, the idea is in my mind, and my mind is extracting the unnecessary information from the idea. Then, when I decide to make the painting, that’s it. It’s similar to pregnancy: you have to wait for something that will come in the future. I wait, more than make paintings.
HJ: So you work everything out on the canvas, constantly responding to what you’re doing?
MS: I’m not painting the idea as it is provided in my memory. The perfect painting is one that surprises me when I finish it. From a mistake, from taking risks, you open the door for new sets of artworks. Of course, I fail a lot. What’s great about this process is that you add awareness of your skills, which means I will return to the subject matter stronger.
HJ: How do shadows function in your work?
MS: Light and shadow is one of the most important elements in the history of painting. I found it’s very important to exploit these elements, to make people feel, ‘I’ve seen this shadow, it’s familiar.’ In the painting Still Alive (2022), there’s a single table, with a chair, and cup. While you enjoy the light and shadow, you will realise it’s actually the shape of a guillotine. It seems like it is striking from the window, coming from the chair’s shape, but it turns strange on the wall for some reason.
HJ: With this memory work, do you access that state of imagination you have as a child, where shadows can turn into monsters?
MS: As I mentioned previously, shadow is one of the most important elements in the painting because of its historical value. One painting showing in Camden is Praying Room (2021). It could really be that there is some image of a religious figure praying, that there is a room like this, and that the shadow is just a shadow of a plant. We get a sensation of threat, and yet, it’s very important not to identify where that lies. It seems real: an incident that has occurred in this particular interior. In this case, I try to turn the familiarity against itself.
HJ: The space is very shallow in the paintings, which adds to the atmosphere. Does this relate to Islamic miniature painting?
MS: For a long time, when I was a child, the only resource allowed in the house was Islamic miniatures. I was a big fan of replicating things, and with a pen and ruler, I made these sharp lines in the paintings. I never thought that it would influence my artwork after many years.
HJ: How important is scale to your paintings? You spoke about being unable to escape the surface.
MS: The scale is important to the subject matter, to the context. There are paintings which demand to be 25cm, because they’re zoomed in on specific details. Some paintings invite the viewers to walk around them, to raise your head, and physically feel you are a part of the painting.
HJ: How long is the process of making a painting?
MS: I work with at least five or six pieces together, because I can get bored if I work with just one painting at a time. When I work with landscapes, I then have to work with something else like garments, or a still life. I’m not saying that I entertain myself working on five paintings: this is purely a growth process. There are many paintings I can’t complete until I jump to a different painting. Once I’ve got answers, I apply them to the other work. The paintings grow together. This process needs at least six months of daily work, seven days a week, 9am to 11.30pm. The paintings I release from my studio are the only successful pieces.
HJ: What proportion do you destroy?
MS: A huge proportion. Every month, I destroy a good number of paintings of different scales. When I have the idea in my brain, I feel the happiest person in the world. Then I realise the idea wasn’t mature: it’s not cooked yet, in other words. When I throw a painting in the bin, I live with this personal depression of failure for many days, and try to encourage myself to work again on something different. It is not an easy process.
HJ: I was interested as to whether any artists had been influential for you. One person
I thought of was Luc Tuymans?
MS: Yes, Luc Tuymans. Also Doris Salcedo. These are great artists. They associate with the subject of conflict indirectly. They encourage the viewers to investigate much more than you see. My current work is not about picking a side of the coin. It’s not about accusation, or outrage; it’s about cutting down the story and letting people feel free to interpret the subject.
The more you see, the more we do.
The National Art Pass lets you enjoy free entry to hundreds of museums, galleries and historic places across the UK, while raising money to support them.