“I think we need to be challenged, we need to hear challenging, radical, provocative things, even if we don’t agree with them, as it’s those things that make us react and make us want to bring about change…” Sarah Maple for TEDx
Sarah Maple is an award-winning British visual artist known for her bold, brave, mischievous and occasionally controversial artworks that challenge notions of identity, religion and the status quo. Her first US solo exhibition, “Thoughts and Prayers,” will be presented by The Untitled Space gallery in Tribeca, NY, opening on January 22nd, and on view through February 3rd, 2019.
Much of Maple’s artistic inspiration originates from being raised Muslim, with parents of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds. Her pro-feminist artwork provokes a dialogue with her sharp humor and satirical eye. Her taboo-breaking artwork fights against censorship as she investigates themes of politics, violence, freedom, feminism, and the ironies of pop culture.
Her latest exhibit, “Thoughts and Prayers,” features many new works, as well as a selection of some of her most notable past works, exploring a wide variety of media including performance, painting, photography, sculpture, collage, installation, and video. In her artist statement on the exhibition, she stated, “I see many parallels between the UK and the US, especially with Brexit and the Trump election. The gun debate is something especially intriguing to the British. The threat of terror is continually focused on and yet nothing is done about gun laws. When officials offer up “Thoughts And Prayers,” it appears hollow and insincere. I am interested in how a lack of action directly and/or indirectly inflicts suffering and potential violence on its citizens.”
Maple is interested in the identity conflict of mixed religions and cultures that prevails in society. “Being a Muslim informs all of my work. For me, the religious references were a way to handle the identity conflict and comment on Muslims living in the West, and trying to make sense of that.” Maple’s art is not for the faint of heart; the audience’s response is always a mix of hate mail and praise.
In lieu of “Thoughts and Prayers” forthcoming opening, we sat down with the controversial artist to chat about the discrepancies of her cultural, religious, and political backgrounds and views.
What drove you to have a political voice? any specific life event or memory?
When I was at art school, I was extremely frustrated by the sexism if I’m honest. The men were taken so much more seriously than the women. It seemed like subconsciously we respected them more, I was even doing that myself. Then one day I was thinking about it and I seriously realized, for first time, that I may be held back in my life for being a woman. I started to make work reflecting on this, with a lot of cheekiness and humor. The impact was amazing, I started getting a lot of followers of my work and I realized I could get out the things I needed to say through my work. I have done that since! I find it hard to articulate myself though I have a lot to say. Art helps me with that!
How do you deal with the non-acceptance of the Muslim community in Western countries post 9/11?
Well, I would like to think more positively that it’s not always like this and there are a lot of people out there who are trying to help. As the majority of my family are Muslim these things really get to me. That’s why I like to try and create different images of Muslim people. I try and talk about these issues as much as I can, and I poke fun at people who see Muslims only in this negative way. I like to question people’s prejudices and make them think again.
Your artwork often contradicts Muslim ideals – what drives that narrative?
I do this because many people tend to see Muslims in one way. This is not helped by negative reporting in the news. We have very irresponsible use of language in some newspapers in the UK. I was raised a Muslim in a very white British town and went to a Catholic school, so I am interested in how two different cultures work side by side. It can be a challenge to navigate two different ways of life! This is why I like to mix traditional images with pop culture references to highlight this.
You have in past received death threats for your controversial artworks, such as the one of you holding a pig, how did you handle that? Are you still getting death threats now that you are more established as an artist?
It was difficult for me at the time, I was quite young and was not expecting it. I felt quite sad that the meaning behind the work was getting lost amongst the controversy. But I’ve learned that if I’m trying to provoke a reaction, in a way I have to expect extreme responses! It’s a risk you have to take. I have not received any death threats since that.
You grew up with a mixed religious background (Catholic and Muslim). How do you view religion now as a grown up? Why did you decide to incorporate it into your art?
I went to a Catholic school, but actually, my dad converted to Islam to marry my Mum, but he never really practiced! My dad was never religious. So it was interesting, more of a devout Muslim and atheist combo! I think in art you often feed in your life experiences, it’s inescapable! Being a Muslim informs all of my work. For me, the religious references were a way to handle the identity conflict and comment on Muslims living in the West, and trying to make sense of that; staying true to your faith whilst also being part of western culture. It’s not a conflict for everyone but it was for me growing up, and I think many people.
You use a lot of humor in your artworks, which are often satirical commentaries on culture, why do you choose that sort of dialogue?
I absolutely love comedy and I love when it’s used to make a political comment. It can be very clever and very persuasive. In my work, I am trying to make various points and almost trying to persuade people to think the way I do!
Tell me about guns in America vs. in The Uk.
It’s completely different in the UK, it’s almost impossible to get a gun. Although I understand the level of taboo must vary from state to state? It’s not really in our culture in Britain, the idea of a school shooting is quite alien. When I was driving in the states my American cousin said, ‘if you get stopped by police DO NOT reach for the glove compartment’. I was shocked, it hadn’t even occurred to me. We are quite fascinated by the gun debate, we’re like, ‘why not just get rid of them?’
The title “Thoughts and Prayers” is genius. What is your response to anyone that offers “thoughts and prayers” in our tumultuous times?
I think it depends on the circumstances. It annoys me when it’s said in reference to a shooting from a person, who in a position of power, is not doing anything to help. It just seems false. This isn’t just limited to America and gun laws, it’s a comment on similar situations globally. This is why I made this work, out of pure frustration!
How do you address stereotypes of feminism in your work?
The idea ‘men are from Mars women are from Venus’ is my biggest frustration. As human beings, we are so much more complex than that. I think ideas of men and women’s roles are so embedded in society and in our culture, that it will take generations to shift that. It’s that unconscious bias that I experienced at art school. I have often found I didn’t even notice it. This is why sometimes, in my work, I just point out the blatantly obvious in a humorous way, and that is powerful enough. Like in my piece ‘Lollipop Lollipop’ I have a beautiful pin-up image with armpit hair, and in my ‘Menstruate with Pride’ piece I have a woman with a blood stain and everyone looking horrified. In my Disney princess series, I give the princesses all amazing jobs: surgeons, scientists and judges (ironically people often refer to this as “Disney princesses with men’s jobs” and I never called it that, so that says a lot). I think changing the visual narrative for women is really important to start us questioning women’s roles and giving us the same opportunities as men.
Who is your favorite feminist that you’ve met, and why?
It’s really hard for me to name just one! There are so many women doing great things, even just small actions that are making big changes. Three years ago, I did a residency in LA, and I was very happy to be there with Janet Braun- Reinitz, who is an incredible artist and was a freedom rider back in the day. We hit it off straight away and stayed friends since, so I would have to say she is up there as one of my favorite badass women of all time.
This is your first solo show in America. What do you hope American viewers learn through your work after seeing your exhibit “Thoughts and Prayers”?
We can get through this crazy time in history together!
Sarah Maple graduated with BA in Fine Art from Kingston University London in 2007 and in the same year won The Saatchi Gallery’s “4 New Sensations” award for emerging artists. Maple’s artwork, film, and performances have been exhibited internationally at galleries and institutions including Tate Britain, The Barbican, AIR Gallery, and The New Art Exchange, among many others. Maple’s work has been the subject of documentaries including for ARTE and VPRO. In 2015 she released her first book “You Could Have Done This,” a hardback of selected works. The same year, she was awarded a Sky Academy Arts scholarship from Sky Arts, which included funding, mentoring and a Sky Arts documentary. In 2017 she gave a TEDx talk in Birmingham, UK on the importance of free speech, titled “The Freedom To Be Challenged.” In 2018 she was invited to make a limited edition cover for Harper’s Bazaar’s Art issue alongside artists including Yayoi Kusama, Barbara Kruger, and Linder Sterling.
SARAH MAPLE, “THOUGHTS AND PRAYERS”
A Solo Exhibition Curated by Indira Cesarine
EXHIBITION ON VIEW
January 22 – February 8, 2019
THE UNTITLED SPACE
45 Lispenard Street Unit 1W