NAE is delighted to present a show of newly commissioned works by award winning artist, Sarah Maple, runner-up of NAE's 2012 exhibition, Culture Cloud and the recipient of the 2015 Sky Academy Arts Scholarship. Maple is known for her bold, brave, mischievous and occasionally controversial artworks that challenges our perceptions of cultural and religious identities. Much of Maple's inspiration originates from being brought up as a Muslim, with parents of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds.
Not My Cup of Tea explores timely questions around integration, the meaning of 'British Values' and the world’s current view of Islam. Through satirical humour, in this exhibition Maple is looking at the sharp rise of xenophobia and Islamophobia in recent years, as well as how certain communities are ‘othered’ and alienated in political narratives, thus effecting public opinion.
Since 9/11, and more recently following the terror attacks in Europe, Muslim communities have been increasingly under pressure from the media and politicians to justify their viewpoints and condemn the tiny minority who have committed abhorrent atrocities in the name of the Islamic faith. Generalisations and oversimplification of the root and causes of Islamic extremism and the rise of home-grown jihadists in Europe, has resulted in hostility and prejudice towards Muslims. In this exhibition, Maple is looking at how terrorism in the name of Islam is affecting the religion and the daily lives of its followers.
Sitting at the heart of the exhibition is a newly commissioned sculptural light installation of the phrase ‘Allahu Akbar’. In its appearance, the piece is a reminder of the neon text works created throughout the twentieth and early twenty-first century by renowned artists such as Bruce Nauman and Tracy Emin. Resembling glossy commercial advertising signs, the constant flashing text and its bright red colour convey a sense of playfulness, which is in stark contrast with the significance of the phrase itself.
‘Allahu Akbar’ is a common Arabic expression often translated in English as ‘God is [the] greatest’ or ‘God is Greater’. Both a formal and an informal declaration of faith, it is used in various contexts by Muslims globally, including in the call for prayer broadcast from mosques (adhān); during daily prayer; in times of distress and fear or to express joy, gratitude and determination; following birth of a child and in funerals; to show approval; and during the Hajj pilgrimage (especially in Day of Arafah). Historically the phrase is also used as a battle cry during wars; it is believed that it was first used by Prophet Muhammad himself during the Battle of Badr, the key battle in the early history of Islam against Mecca’s pagan tribes.
For many in the west, the phrase ‘Allahu Akbar’ is however linked with terror, often recounted by witnesses as the last words of Islamist terrorists shortly before committing outrageous attacks on innocent people. Aware of the sensitivity and uncomfortable connotation of the phrase for some non-Muslims, who are influenced by the negative portrayals of Islam in the media, here Maple uses supersized text in a popular format to force visitors to confront and potentially rethink their gut-response to the phrase.
The artwork is comprised of number of individual light bulbs, some of which continuously flicker, reminiscent of faulty domestic lamps or shop signs, where one’s immediate reaction would be finding a way to ‘fix’ the problem. Contextually, this faulty appearance of the piece
alludes to the lazy generalisation and simplified solutions to the so-called ‘Muslim Problem’ promoted by politicians such as Donald Trump. Sweeping gestures such as banning entry to the US for citizens from certain Muslim countries for example, will only serve to agitate rather solve the complex and entrenched problem of extremism.
Simply titled Brexit, is a new body of staged photographs based around the language used during the Brexit campaign. Over the spring/summer of 2016, Maple began to notice a repetition of particular slogans in the media that spread across the country. Tantalising slogans such as, ‘take back control’ and ‘I want my country back’ as well as claims to reassert British sovereignty were used by the Leave side relentlessly. Maple has collected such slogans and visually juxtaposed these with the idea of being quintessentially British. She states:
“2016 has made me think about what exactly British values are. During the Brexit campaign, many people voiced a feeling of nostalgia for ‘the good old days’. I am interested in what ‘idea’ of Britain people would like to return to, and if this could ever be feasible in the modern age.”
Filled with humour and ironic twists on the idea of being quintessentially British, the series aims to explore how, when discussing the idea of ‘returning to British values’, this only appears to be achievable at the expense of migrants and refugees. During the EU referendum right wing politicians and the media also used slogans that alluded to a sense of rightful ownership and entitlement, that somehow ‘we’ have earned our country of heritage and the displaced want to take something that ‘belongs’ to us. In her poster, Life Lottery, featuring the image of a new born baby, Maple challenges this viewpoint by reminding the viewer that our national identity is determined by luck. The artwork recalls Cecil Rhodes famous quote, “Remember that you are an Englishman, and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life."
The rhetoric around Brexit resulted in considerable anti-foreigner sentiments. During the weeks immediately after the Brexit vote, recorded levels of hate crime rose in the UK considerably. Maple is particularly concerned with how certain communities are ‘othered’ and alienated in political narratives. The ‘othering’ or the process of casting a group of people as ‘different’ is neither a new social phenomenon nor a problem exclusive to Britain. Throughout history and across the world many communities have been, and continue to be, marginalised because of their race, religion, class, sexual orientation or political views. Muslim communities and refugees are the current major target of ‘othering’ in many countries across Europe and in the US. This has inspired some of the artworks on display in this exhibition including the Go Home globe and a short video titled The National Lottery, made in the same format as the popular reality television programme Wife Swap, in which two families, usually from different social backgrounds and lifestyles, swap homes for a period of time. Set in a recognisable British suburban house, a British man is preparing to swap house with a refugee from Calais, however the new house sitter is not what the family was expecting.
Earlier in her practice Maple regularly addressed the struggle of being mixed-race - the attempt to integrate and failing as you do not fit into one category. In 2008 she held an exhibition inspired by her background of being a Muslim with mixed parentage. Maple’s father is white British and her mother is Iranian. There was a widespread backlash against one of the artworks displayed, a signature style self-portrait which depicts Maple in headscarf cuddling a pig, a reflection on her biracial identity. This experience had a profound effect on Maple’s personal life and her artistic career.
“In the years after this incident I vowed I would remain strong and never be deterred by threats. However, after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015, I began to think again on the ‘limits’ of free speech today. I realized I had not discussed my Islamic heritage in my work since the threats had been made. I began to wonder if I had been subconsciously silenced by these threats.”
Fascinated by the concept of Freedom of Speech and where we draw the line, some of the artworks presented in this exhibition ask fundamental questions about how ‘free’ western society actually is, and whether the notion of ‘safe space’ is jeopardising this. The idea behind safe space is to provide an environment where people of all background can feel confident that they won’t be exposed to discrimination, marginalisation, harassments, criticism or any other forms of physical or emotional harm. Commendable as a concept, its critics believe safe spaces, especially in educational intuitions, impede honest debates on sensitive matters and limit free speech.
Reflecting on the ideology behind safe space and her own experience of receiving severe criticism over some of her works, Maple is interested in how this controls what one can and cannot say.
“There is a feeling that the public are unsure how to talk about Islam and the fear of causing offence hinders the conversation. This has left us in a limbo state where we know there is a serious issue that needs discussion but constructive conversations and actions are not taking place.”
Therefore, above all, in the exhibition Not My Cup of Tea, Maple is creating an honest and open space for discussion on the important and difficult socio-political issues of our times.
By Armindokht Shooshtari, Curator of Not My Cup Tea, New Art Exchange.