Friday, October 17, 2008

Lipstick and a pig: Sarah Maple makes her mark

We hear a lot these days about how the more fundamentalist strains of Islam are allegedly curtailing the basic rights of people in western democracies by resorting to various forms of cultural intimidation. If you’d seen The Daily Telegraph earlier last week you’d have encountered what at first sight seemed like yet another example of this.

The Telegraph’s Mandrake diarist reported on a new exhibition of paintings by young British woman artist, Sarah Maple on show at Samir Ceric’s new SaLon Gallery in Westbourne Grove, West London. According to the Telegraph, one painting in particular – the self-portrait entitled Haram (shown above left) – has incurred the wrath of the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB).

The oil on canvas shows Maple, herself a young British Muslim, wearing traditional Islamic dress and cradling a pig. According to The Daily Telegraph report, Mokhtar Badri, a spokesman for MAB, objected to the work on the grounds that Muslims are “taught to keep their distance from pigs because they are unclean”. The Telegraph item reported that MAB “plans to visit the SaLon Gallery to demand that it remove Maple’s painting” when the exhibition opens on October 16. Accordingly, SaLon Gallery had been preparing to increase its security provision ahead of yesterday evening’s opening.

Perhaps understandably, the Telegraph story was picked up by one or two blogs and other media outlets. James Brandon at something called The Centre for Social Cohesion posted an item to Europe News which repeated the Telegraph’s claim that that “members of MAB planned to visited the SaLon gallery and demand that the painting by Sarah Maple is withdrawn from the exhibition.”

But when I contacted Dr Badri by phone this week he confirmed that neither he nor his organization had ever planned or threatened any such action. Dr Badri had still not seen the painting when I called him. He did, however, say that he would be interested to see and support the work of a young Muslim woman artist but would only visit the show if the pig painting were not on view since Muslims consider pigs to be unclean. He emailed me a lengthy and detailed statement which he had forwarded to the Daily Telegraph and which gave a different impression to what the Telegraph piece communicated. He was angry at having been misrepresented.

Was this a media attempt to incite ethnic division where no real controversy existed? And shouldn’t a body calling itself The Centre for Social Cohesion have attempted to approach MAB for its side of the story?

Sussex-based Maple, 23, makes work based on her own experience of Islam and if MAB had indeed been willing to visit SaLon Gallery to support the artist she would probably have had to remove the bulk of the work in the exhibition. But that’s not the sole focus of her work. She also likes to poke fun at popular attitudes towards conceptual art and at the stupidity of the art market.

Sensationalist news reports notwithstanding, at last night’s opening Ms Maple was clearly enjoying the publicity that the furore over Haram had generated. She’s been described as the next Tracey Emin or Sarah Lucas (two of her role models) and meeting her one can see she’s got art-star destiny written all over her.

Last night, dressed in a short strapless dress covered in lipstick kisses, her hair piled up in an unruly Winehouse bird's nest (left), Sarah told me she was trying to provoke debate about women in Islam but was not trying to insult fellow Muslims. “It's difficult though; we live in scary times,” she was recently quoted as saying. “I really do not want to offend. Why would I want to offend my own religion? I get great responses on MySpace from western Muslims from all over the world who are really positive and happy to have found someone like them!”

I asked her if she slept easily at night or lay awake worrying about the reaction her work might cause. She insisted that the only thing keeping her awake was the continuous swarm of work-related ideas buzzing around her head. And doubtless the prospect of fame and fortune as the new enfant terrible of British contemporary art.