Sarah Maple's art is akin to – and has been on the receiving end – a brick thrown at a gallery window. “I always count how many women there are compared to men. It’s usually about 30% or less,” she says. “Do some galleries really think women’s work is not worth showing or supporting? Do we really have less to say? It’s very frustrating.”
Addressing her duel Iranian and English heritage, the artist's 2008 show featured her in a hijab holding a model pig. The show left someone so incensed that they smashed the gallery window. Since then, Maple could well be the only artist to take on the Kardashians (with her 'Keeping Up With The Kapulets' show), stereotypes around Islam (with her 'I Love Orgasms' acrylic), and the taboos around menstruation (with her 'Menstruate With Pride' triptych). She has received a flurry of glowing reviews – and even more death threats.
Refusing to be intimidated, Maple has since shown the art world how to make political art that is tangible, mischievous and challenging. And with the dawning of Trump and Brexit, her work remains as combative as ever.
Last month, her work appeared in 'Not 30%', The Other Art Fair's all-women show highlighting the discrepancy of representation between male and female artists. She was recently selected to provide a cover for Harper's Bazaar annual art issue: Maple posed with a Trump OK hand gesture and a placard reading "The most tremendous magazine cover ever!" Whether it's kitsch tea cups adorned with "Send Them Back" above an English pastoral scene, or a sack-like anti-rape cloak, Maple's art is a prime example of cultural resistance against our dire political situation.
You've previously mentioned that your piece of Disney princess doing serious jobs was seen as 'Disney princesses doing male jobs.' When you were younger, did you see artist as a 'male' job? What has your journey in the male dominated art world been like?
When I was younger, I had blind confidence and naivety that I had the same opportunities as men, it didn’t occur to me that I wouldn’t. Can you then understand the confusion and rage I felt when I realised this wasn’t the case? Then my art really took off!
My journey in the male-dominated art world is very frustrating. I think people take your work less seriously on an intellectual level. You have to try twice as hard to be taken seriously. Whenever I look at a gallery website, I always count how many women there are compared to men. It’s usually about 30% or less. I did this on a site the other day and not a single woman was represented! Do some galleries really think women’s work is not worth showing or supporting? Do we really have less to say? It’s very frustrating.
You've worked across a large number of mediums – from cardboard castles to your own body hair. Which medium has been the most tricky to go from idea to finished work – and why?
I made a massive text piece saying Allahu Akbar’ in lights. The lights flash intermittently giving the impression that there may be a fault with it. The idea is that the viewer is not meant to know if the fault is meant to be there or not. This was very difficult to realise due to the vast scale of the piece and not to mention the financial implications! And it was a huge gamble as I wasn’t in complete control of actually making it and I had no idea if it would have the desired effect until it was displayed.
Also to a degree, painting is a very difficult process, you can have an idea in your mind how you want something to appear but then you’re in constant fear how it’s going to turn out! It’s a slow process and it can be very hard to be objective. Finishing a big painting must be the most satisfying of all the mediums though.
Over the last two years, there has been a slow trickle of sexual assault allegations against art dealers and collectors. Does the art world need more exposure in the #MeToo movement?
Yes I think so, I hear so many stories of harassment and really horrific behaviour that you can’t believe still goes on. It needs more exposure or even its own movement, as there are many people don’t feel like they can speak out and definitely don’t think the support is out there.
Your work covers lots of increasingly complex and problematic issues: female Muslim identity, the intersection of anatomy and gender, the cultural subconscious that led to Brexit. These issues are causing people across the political spectrum to rethink their values. Who helps inform your own values and keeps your moral compass pointing in the right direction – artists, politicians, friends and family?
The other day, I tried to think like a rightwing person and tried to persuade myself to go along with those arguments but I couldn’t do it! I am constantly researching to keep myself informed, and I still feel like I know absolutely nothing. All I know is how I feel about the things I see. And that’s what I appeal to when I make my work.
I think because of how I was raised I have a fundamental belief in equality, although I know that will never happen. But we can understand our privilege. I think I only truly realised my own privilege properly in the past few years, living in the UK, my family situation, my whiteness. It keeps you in check! Also because I was raised as Muslim I feel very strongly on issues of ‘otherness’ or any particular issues that effect the Muslim community. This must be why I feel I have so much to say at the moment!
Do you think there are any issues that the art world is not talking about enough?
I have to say I am quite surprised about the lack of political exhibitions out there. There’s nothing that’s really excited me for a while. Or maybe I’m missing something. We just had Frieze and I didn’t see or hear anything that really spoke to me about the crazy times we’re in. But then I suppose not all artists feel the need to or are doing it more indirectly. The Turner Prize is quite good this year, to be fair. There was a show at the Imperial War Museum with artists reacting to the War On Terror – which was great – but I hear it wasn’t very well attended. Maybe people are going to see art to escape from it all these days.
You have talked elsewhere about the amount of online abuse your work generates. How do you hope people will react when they feel challenged by your work? Do you recieve a lot of positive comments from both men and women?
I think part of my work is goading people in a way, I’m trying to provoke and get a reaction - to get people to focus on what I’m saying. I want people to feel a particular way, so it’s up to me to make that happen. But I’ve realised that can often be a very difficult task! So, if I’m provoking I can’t really be too surprised if people react in a negative way online, it’s become part of it. With regards to gender, you would think it would mainly be women who support me, but actually I have many lovely followers who are men, it’s really great when the men enjoy the feminist work especially.
And finally: Brexit. You are given the Fourth Plinth. You are given over £1m to produce a piece of work on us leaving the EU. What would be your statement?
Is it bad to say my first thought is to leave the plinth blank and spend all the money on an illegal/immoral pro-Remain campaign, which would be full of false promises and empty statements to persuade all the leavers into changing their minds. It would be a performance piece! As you can see I’m still not over it…
Words by Richard Lemmer
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