“I hide the traumatic image behind a cactus or a carpet” – the paintings of Iraqi exile Mohammed Sami | Painting

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Mohammed Sami can never anticipate what his next painting will be about. “The things I articulate in my works are memories hidden in brain cells waiting for a trigger,” says the Iraqi-born artist in his London studio, which is lined with large-scale paintings. “So whenever the trigger is available, the image comes.”

He points to one called Slaughtered Sun, a figure of speech in Arabic to describe the sunset. A scorched orange sky casts an otherworldly glow over wheat fields dug by heavy purple furrows – they could be tractor tracks, but the blood-red pools in the foreground suggest latent violence. “I was drinking coffee and saw cycle lanes on a puddle in London,” says Sami. “It immediately connected me to the American tank tracks during the 2003 invasion and the flattened fields.”

The artist, who emigrated to Sweden in 2007 as a refugee, stood out at last year’s exhibition Mixing It Up: Painting Today at London’s Hayward and the 2020 Towner Eastbourne Biennial. This month he has his first major solo exhibition in the UK, at Modern Art in London.

Sami’s paintings are generally devoid of figures but nevertheless have a human presence, whether he depicts claustrophobic domestic interiors, haunting landscapes, or charged ordinary objects. The shadow of a spider plant can turn into a disturbing invader, or the chairs of a parliamentary hall become a vast cemetery. Plagued by ambivalence, mimicking the unreliability of memory, Sami’s hallucinatory paintings have a way of getting under the skin. A huge canvas, actually titled Skin, depicts human-sized pink and red patterned scrolls that look like carpets or leather-bound tomes, yet the horror of scorched flesh simultaneously comes to mind.

A barricade against bombs… 23 years of night by Mohammed Sami (2022). Photography: Robert Glowacki/courtesy the Artist & Modern Art, London

“It’s the type of signifier I use to hide the traumatic image behind something completely different, like a cactus or the rug on the floor,” Sami explains. “It helps distract you from the main subject, which is trauma and conflict.” In Arab culture, he says, euphemism and allegory are used as “a deceptive strategy to not let the authorities understand what we are saying”.

Born in Baghdad in 1984 under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, Sami lived through the Iran-Iraq conflict, two Gulf Wars, the American invasion and sectarian violence. He shared a 100 square meter house with six brothers, three sisters and their parents. An exquisitely rendered painting of particleboard blocking a window evokes their existence with eloquent economy. Titled 23 Years of Night, it references Sami’s life growing up with bomb-barricaded windows – and yet the net curtains are embroidered with delicate stars, easing the gloom.

Sami’s mother, an amateur artist, was the only member of the family to encourage his talent. Being dyslexic, he made a deal at school to paint monumental propaganda murals in exchange for passing math and English. This experience explains the ambitious scale of his paintings, he says. At home, he studied Islamic miniatures for lack of other art books, which helps explain the discordant perspective compositions of his paintings: compartmentalized interiors with doors that can open inward or outward. outside, floors rising upwards, abruptly cut horizons.

After Saddam’s overthrow, Sami had a difficult time working at the Ministry of Culture to help recover art looted from the Iraqi museum, until an embassy contact helped him get asylum in Sweden. Several paintings titled Refugee Camp depict a house deep in a fenced wood, which we might be tempted to read as sinister. Sami, however, describes his time there as “the happiest days of my life. It was a school of freedom where you are free to choose your identity. He goes back there every month. “It was a shock,” he says. “You live in dust and deserts with the sound of bullets. And suddenly you open your eyes to gardens like paradise.

The Fountain I (2021).
The Fountain I (2021). Photography: Robert Glowacki/courtesy the Artist & Modern Art, London

That said, Sweden also proved remains for Sami, and he leaves to pursue his artistic training, first at Ulster University in Belfast, then at Goldsmiths in London. This caused a complete shift in his work as he gave up reproducing war scenes, instead tapping into his memories to evoke an underlying sense of disquiet.

Sami never takes pictures or sketches. He works on several canvases at the same time. Titles and motifs return, giving the impression that his paintings are engaged in endless conversation. It can take months for triggers to occur. He tries to incite them by reading Arabic literature. At other times, the memories “fall fluidly, like rain from the sky and I stay 17 hours in the studio”.

Although his paintings are loaded with personal memories, they are ambiguous enough to invite multiple associations. It’s impossible to see the execution room, with its shiny table and gilded chairs, without remembering the lavish, barren room where Vladimir Putin met with world leaders to discuss his war on Ukraine. “What kind of decisions are made in these rooms? Sami asks. “I learned that the power of invisibility is much more powerful than the power of visibility.”

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