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Sarah Maple Exposes the Abuse of Freedom of Speech

We talk to the London-based artist about the tricky territory of expression and her previous work on period shaming, Islam, and reality TV fetishes.

by Sami Emory
07 April 2016, 2:40pm

All images courtesy of Sarah Maple. 

When London-based artist Sarah Maple's oil on canvas painting, Haram, went up for exhibition, vandals threw a brick through the gallery’s window in an attempt—and failure—to break in. The 2008 painting features the artist depicted in red and white Islamic dress, cradling a baby pig, an animal which, as Maple explains, “is a symbol of disgust in Islam.” “The death threats followed from that,” Maple tells The Creators Project. “[When it happened,] The media focused mainly on this picture, but I think it was a general anger.” No stranger to criticism, Maple once toured the U.S. in an Anti Rape Cloak (above). Now, the artist is wandering around London wearing a sandwich board of criticism for her new project, Comment is Free.

This project is Maple’s reaction to the tricky territory of online self-expression. On each of the four days of The Other Art Fair, which opens in London today, Maple will invite visitors to comment on a selection of previous works on display at her booth. Then, she will choose a random comment and write it on the sandwich board, which she will wear for the remainder of the day.

“Commenting online and the fine line between freedom of speech and abuse is a really important thing for me to look at for the new show,” Maple tells me. “For the first time ever, you can say anything you want to anyone, no matter how hateful it is.” 

Maple experienced the sentiment firsthand after her interview with The Guardian in 2015 went viral, accruing over 11,000 shares and 330 comments. “We are now part of this culture where we are encouraged to share and comment on everything,” the artist says. “Wearing a sandwich board is a bit like a public humiliation […] I wanted to highlight the impact this may or may not have on the artist.”

Like Haram, many of Maple’s works investigate social interpretations, exaggerations, and manipulations of religious maxims. Comment is Free, in fact, is only the latest in the young artist’s rapidly accumulating oeuvre, which mobilizes photography, painting, performance art, and mixed media to articulate issues like religion, period shaming, Islamophobia, reality TV fetishes, rape, and, most recently, freedom of speech.

Born in England in 1986 to a white, British father and an Iranian Muslim mother, Maple was raised Muslim, attending mosque as a young girl and dutifully studying the Qur'an. When she reached school-age, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic primary in Eastbourne. There, as a child from mixed parentage and in the religious minority, she was exposed to the experience of being an outsider. It was a natural step for her, upon graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Kingston University in 2007, to transpose these nuanced experiences into art. “I became more interested in contemporary art and realized the power art has to create cultural shifts and actually say something about the world,” she explained. “It was this that motivated me to become an artist, it was a way to give me a voice about the things I care about.”

In 2008, fresh out of university at the age of 22, Maple produced her first internationally acknowledged work: an oil and acrylic on canvas work bearing the phrase, “Islam is the new Black.” Up until this point, the artist says, she “had never really talked about or shared her thoughts” on her religion, heritage, and upbringing. “So it was the right time for me to talk about those things.” In this piece, next to this scrawled slogan, stands a woman fully obscured in a black burqa. Stare long enough and you are just able to determine the vestiges of eyes, nose, and mouth beneath the impenetrable paint.

It was still the “right time” to voice her thoughts in 2010, when Maple painted Menstruate With Pride, an oil on canvas in triptych, the style and medium most readily associated with the Bosch, Bacon, and the Byzantine. The piece presents a crowded scene, concentrated in the middle panel: a man with a monkey, a girl in a niqab, a mom with a daughter in tow. They seem frozen, contorted into various postures and expressions of outrage toward the woman at the center.

Here stands Maple. Her dark hair pulled back into a topknot, she dons a virginal white dress and Ozian red flats. One hand cocks off a hip, the other raises in a fist, fingers facing the viewer. Just above her pelvis, shines an unruly blotch of red. In uneven tendrils, the blood stretches down the white fabric. The shape of the stain itself is distinctively triangular, as if an imprint from the organ below. One’s eyes do not immediately focus upon this centralized figure of implacable femininity, however. Instead they gravitate towards the voyeuristic viewers. As the artist explained to me, “Your attention is more drawn towards everyone who is looking so disgusted and horrified by it, which, I hope, in turn draws your attention to how ludicrous it is that we are so freaked out by menstruation and women’s natural functions.”

The use of menstrual blood—literally, as in the case of freebleeder Kiran Gandhi, and symbolically, as with Petra Collins and her menstruating-vagina shirt—has become so normative in feminist and body-positive art as to become predictable, as Maple is the first to admit. “It’s funny really; when I made that piece, I was really keen to avoid any clichés; because, you know: menstrual blood is such a cliché,” she said. “But I decided to do it anyway [because] I think that blood is a very powerful symbol. And I think that’s why people really connect with it. Plus,” she adds, “menstruation is such a taboo still.”

It was again the “right time” to voice her thoughts last year when Maple’s Keeping Up With The Kapulets short film joined her Kimberly Faces photo series as unsung mainstays of Kardashian satire. In the first, the artist stages a portmanteau of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with E!’s canonical reality show. (Imagine: Kylie, Kim, Kloe, and Kris and Elizabethan necklines.) The second is a succession of screenshots from the show of Kim in varying degrees of composure; one frame represents the star in an almost saintlike profile, another seems to have been captured at the moment of exorcism.

It is not the carefully contoured women themselves which fascinate Maple, but rather society’s fascination of reality TV’s first family. “Kim Kardashian is part of all of our lives, even if we don't choose for her to be!” She explains, “I [also] made a film of different groups of people watching and reacting to the film. It's quite funny as when the film starts pretty much everyone says they don't watch the show and have no interest in them. Then they spend the rest of the film talking about them and all the gossip surrounding them.” This experiment is exemplary of one of Maple’s lines of inquiry: “How things subconsciously enter our brains and cause a shift or attitude in us without us even knowing about it, like gender roles, sexism etc.” She adds, “It's so engrained in our culture we often don't even notice these things.”

Late last year, most of Maple’s works were consolidated into the artist’s first book and abridged anthology of her work, You Could Have Done This. Here, a reader can see the scope of Maple’s career, such as works like her I love Orgasms acrylic, her Bananarama oil work, and her Melons C-type print. “All my pieces are quite instant. So, they appeal to people on a mass level (or I hope they do). I did this picture (I love Orgasms) like a personal advertisement: I’m wearing a burqa and a badge that says, ‘I Love Orgasms.’ At the time, I felt that a lot of women in Islam couldn’t be seen as sexual. There’s a huge taboo about that as well—although, I suppose that’s all faiths really and I suppose in [secular] society too. There’s other cheeky ones: I’m eating a banana in one (Bananarama); there’s one where I’m holding melons in a hijab and I’m smoking a cigarette (Melons); stuff like that. It’s not very subtle imagery.”

Shortly after publishing You Could Have Done This, Maple was awarded a Sky Academy Arts scholarship in the form of a $46,600 grant, free mentoring, and a Sky Arts documentary. With the support of this prestigious award, Maple will be “researching and looking at other incidents of artists being censored and looking at freedom of speech. Looking at, in particular, where the dialogue is going at the moment, because it feels a bit like we are going around in circles. It’s bloody mental and heartbreaking to hear about women who have stood up for themselves or stood up for something else and they just get called horrible things on the internet—that’s there forever.”

In a sense, Comment is Free is a prologue to this larger project. It is a study of the darker side of freedom of speech, an exposé of the effect of these expressions on the artist. “At the time [of my 2008 show], I was quite self-assured, thinking that ‘I wouldn’t let anything get to me,’” she says. “But that stuff has got to get to you. No one can come out of that unscathed. That’s what I’m exploring: how it affected me. How I was silenced without knowing it. I think that’s happening to a lot of activists on the internet and a lot of artists. Where they are quietly silenced and begin to self-censor…That’s what I want to look at in work.”

Sarah Maple and her sandwich board will be at London’s The Other Art Fair for her latest work, Comment is Free, from April 7 to April 11. Find out more about The Other Art Fair here. See the rest of Maple’s work on her website.

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Tagged:
Islam
London
Islamophobia
freedom of speech
reality tv
Period Shaming
Comment is Free
Sarah Maple
Sky Academy Arts
The Other Art Festival
You Could Have Done This