Camden Art Centre, London
27 January – 28 May 2023
Mohammed Sami was born in Baghdad in 1984 under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. His prodigious talent as a painter was recognised when he was still a child and he spent years working on large-scale propaganda paintings for the regime. He gained asylum in Sweden in 2007 and subsequently has come to make his home in London. This is his first institutional solo show in the UK, following contributions to the Hayward’s Mixing it Up last year and to the Whitechapel Open.
We are a little more than a week away from the 20th anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by the allied forces. Anyone with a visual memory built up from news coverage of the invasion will come to Sami’s show with an unavoidable set of expectations. “Art gives you the opportunity to not paint everything”, says the artist, however. For while his paintings are undoubtedly a negotiation with his memories, what emerges from the process is allusive rather than narrative; evocations of a highly personal experience of recollection, rather than documentary. This is part of what renders Sami’s work so compelling: that they meet our need to understand from the other side, to find a counter to the lurid tropes of journalism.
The Point 0 is a beautifully installed exhibition, taking us in a slow crescendo from the diminutive 2020 painting that gives the show its name, through to the magisterial One Thousand and One Nights, 2022. The Point 0, 2020, is a view through the ‘O’ of an airplane window, looking out onto a sea of sand. That year, the artist returned to visit Baghdad, following his father’s death. The painting, in all its simplicity, announces the journey made through memory, from exile.
Sitting next to it is The Meditation Room, 2022 – a painting that encapsulates many of the qualities that one finds in Sami’s works. For a start it’s quite big, imposing. One is struck by the ostensible scarcity of the subject matter: large areas of the canvas are almost featureless brown wall. Here is a darkened interior space, maybe domestic, maybe not. High on the facing wall is the portrait of a man in military fatigues; you can’t see his face as it is hung too high; we assume it is Saddam Hussein. Strong, golden sunlight outlines the door, which is only just ajar, and casts a shaft across the floor and up the opposite wall. Two further beams of sunlight express the intrusion of the outside world into this quiet interior. A rug on the floor is rucked up into folds.
For the majority of us who have never visited Iraq ourselves, our repository of visual associations might stretch to recollections of 19th century ‘orientalist’ paintings, that typically featured luxuriant, intricately patterned textiles, opulent robes, and honey-coloured architecture. Part of a European fantasy of a world of sensuality and freedom from repressive western mores, colour, and pattern performed an important metaphorical role. In Mohammed Sami’s paintings, carpets also recur – yet here they seem to stand in for the human and homely as well as for the persistence of an ancient culture that transcends recent politics. In previous paintings there have been piles of rolled carpets that have evoked the merchant as well as nomadic traditions. In the Camden show, there is a painting of a pile of mattresses, each with differently patterned covers. It is monumental and the mattresses fill the canvas from top to bottom and from side to side. It is titled Ten Siblings, 2021. The language is somehow chilling, and recalls the tone of news reports. Nothing is clearly stated, but much is very powerfully conveyed. Sami was once given advice by Luc Tuymans, to “paint the sound of the bullet, not the bullet.”
Sami’s paintings are notable for the way they describe different qualities of light: Sand Storm and the Weeping Lines, both 2022, are great examples of this. In the first we peer in through the windows of a home at an empty sofa. The scene is bathed in an unnatural tangerine glow, a flash of reflected white neon strip light flares across the upper left of the canvas. The atmosphere conveyed is unsettling, as if we come to the scene in the aftermath of some dramatic event. The Weeping Lines, 2022, shows washing lines full of clothes strung across a street to dry. Layers of diaphanous garments, overlap with their own shadows, cast on the wall behind. The tones are those of bruises and mourning. As with all Sami’s paintings, the literal figures of people are missing, yet their lives are inescapably present, manifest in the minutiae of their material lives.
One Thousand and One Nights is a vast canvas filling a whole wall in the second gallery. Cast in the distinctive emerald green of military night-vision, it shows a wide, dark sky lit up with flares or tracer fire. The vivid Prussian blues and phosphorescent green of the palette give an almost exalted feeling, like Van Gogh’s Starry Night, 1889, yet here a ball of fire, an explosion on the horizon brings us quickly back to history. It is terrifying and beautiful all at once, a terrible, contemporary sublime.
Arkwright Rd, London NW3 6DG
Opening Times: Tuesday – Sunday, 11.00-18.00; Thursday, 11.00-21.00
Exhibition open until 28 May 2023