Delving into his long-standing exploration of memory in relation to time and conflict, we were lucky enough to see Mohammed Sami’s large-scale canvasses up-close at his current exhibition: The Point 0 at Camden Art Centre.
Mohammed Sami, born in 1984 in Baghdad, Iraq, learnt his artistic trade from painting propaganda murals for Saddam Hussein’s regime as a schoolboy. He was set to work painting portraits of the leader to be hung in offices, public buildings and homes. Now he approaches his painting as a way to narrate his memories, drawing on his own experiences living under Hussein’s regime, and subsequently as a refugee in Sweden.
He shines a light on conflict and violence in a tenderly subtle way, his large-scale paintings exquisitely and painfully depict belated memories triggered by common everyday objects. What at first glance may seem like a picturesque room, becomes an eerily abandoned interior, hanging textiles on a washing line become a haunting reminder of a previous life, chairs in a parliamentary hall become a vast graveyard. and depictions of everyday objects including clothing, mattresses, chairs and tables suddenly wrench your heart, as you slowly realise the circumstances in which they must have been hurriedly left, or what dangers lie just beyond the frame.
Memory and time are treated as a flexible material, probing at the root of what it means to remember. Sami excavates the past and returns again and again to the point of origin – The Point 0. This appears as ambiguously as a yellow egg, a zero, or a dusty desert as seen through a plane window. The ambivalence of Sami’s is no accident: his work mimics the unreliability of memory, with his hallucinatory paintings finding a definite and irreversible way under your skin. One huge canvas for example, portrays huge repetitive slabs in pinks and reds, resembling patterned textiles, and yet the horror of the title, A Study of Guts, distressingly transforms the painting into horrifically flayed flesh. Another canvas depicts a pile of mattresses – beautifully painted in all their detailed differences, they could have climbed straight out of a children’s fairy-tale book, the melancholy title Ten Siblings implies the bodies who once lay upon them. “This is the type of signifier I use to hide the traumatic image behind something entirely different. It helps to distract you from the main subject matter, which is trauma and conflict.” The paintings wholly encapsulate turmoil, however peaceful they may appear at first glance.
One huge painting, Refugee Camp, depicts a building high up on a jagged cliff, the lit-up rooms leak a dazzling yellow light across a dark silhouette of trees. Despite the title, which we might be tempted to read as sinister, Sami describes his stay there as “the most beautiful days of my life. It was a school of freedom where you’re free to pick your identity.” He returns there every month. “It was a shock; you live in dust and deserts with the sound of bullets. And suddenly you open your eyes to gardens like heaven.” After a reviving stay, Sweden proved too sedate for Sami, and he left to pursue his artistic training. First in Belfast, and then at Goldsmiths in London.
Describing his process, Sami states that he works on several canvases all at once. It can take months for a ‘trigger’ to happen, explaining that his memories are hidden in his brain cells and are just waiting to be triggered. He tries to prompt them by reading Arabic literature. At other times, the memories fall fluidly, for example he remembers one such moment; “I was drinking coffee and I saw bike tracks on a puddle in London, this connected me immediately with the tracks of American tanks during the 2003 invasion and the flattened fields.”
Mohammed Sami: The Point O is showing at Camden Art Centre, London, from 27 January to 28 May.