Mohammed Sami: The Banality of Time

28 July 2023

“When you ignore a long history of conflict, and you paint just a shadow, the details of history aren’t necessary anymore, or not as much as the effect that lies in the shadow. If people call it trauma, I slightly disagree because it’s not about traumatic things — it’s more like a haunting. It’s when the memory haunts and changes different objects.”
— Mohammed Sami in conversation with Sohrab Mohebbi

The first thing I tend to notice about Mohammed Sami’s paintings is the light. While nearly all of his work relies on the fragile balance between presence and absence, what is visible and invisible (all of which contribute to the “haunting” which he discusses with Sohrab Mohebbi), for me it’s the light that creates the haunted, uncanny mood in each image. Every window, doorway and object is marked by its proximity to shadow or penumbra, that intermediate stage of an eclipse where the object is only partially obscured. This, more than any other visual device, emphasises the duality in Sami’s work.

For anyone familiar with Sami’s paintings, duality and ambiguity play an outsize role in The Point 0, Sami’s first institutional solo exhibition, at Camden Art Centre. This is clear from the artwork which lends the exhibition its title: a large, ochre-coloured oval that fills the modest canvas with no clear focal point. The abstract nature of the image forces you to try and fill the void with something recognisable — like a sandstorm viewed from an aeroplane window — and then a narrative. But Sami’s work is not didactic. He is much more interested in ambiguity than allegory.

The inability to firmly grasp the “real” nature of what we’re observing is the crucial point (the “point zero”) of Sami’s work. Each painting in the exhibition deals with an ambiguity that is reflected in its title. Meditation Room (2022) offers a view of a room, the light of a semi-open door pouring into view and partly luminating the portrait of a military figure. The title suggests a room for meditating, a place to achieve mental and emotional clarity. But the atmosphere suggests otherwise: a scrunched carpet is trapped under the semi-open doorway. The blade of light escaping into the room builds a sense of drama. The bloody ochre of the room points to something corporeal. And the military figure whose face is obscured strongly resembles official portraits of Saddam Hussein, which were mandatory in all homes in Iraq during his reign of terror. Here, Sami creates just enough visual disturbance to invoke a sense of dissonance between what we see and what we interpret from the image and title. There is something both banal and sinister happening at the same time.

Mohammed Sami, 'Meditation Room' (2022). Mixed media on linen. 280 x 230 cm. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of the artist and Modern Art, London

Similarly, in The Praying Room (2021), Sami conjures the banality and the sinister by rendering an empty room, with a pair of hands in supplication appearing before us even as the face and body are obscured by the shadow of another doorway. We cannot see the supplicant, but the hands face the direction of an ominous spider-like shadow, cast by a house plant in the foreground. Again we have a dual sense of calm created by the empty space, and unease created by the shadow of the plant and doorway.

Mohammed Sami, 'The Praying Room' (2021). Mixed media on linen. 230 x 285 cm. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of the artist and Modern Art, London

In her memoir In Memory of Memory, the Russian poet and novelist Maria Stepanova ruminates on her family’s collective past, prompted by a cache of artefacts and personal effects left behind by Stepanova’s deceased aunt. “The subjectivity and selectivity of memory,” she writes, “means we can fix on a historical ‘excerpt’ which has nothing in common with history itself…” Stepanova is commenting on the proliferation of digital images that try to capture every moment as an artefact, or ‘excerpt’ of the past, that can definitively seize the past for us. But rather than preserving the past, the obsessive cult of preservation only reinforces narratives and ideas about the past which have nothing in common with what actually took place — a kind of weird nostalgia or veneration for a past that in reality was neither idyllic nor innocent. (Sami, incidently, doesn’t work at all from photographs or other visual source material.)

Possibly one of the more literal depictions of Sami’s remembered life is Refugee Camp (2022). Rendered on an enormous 5.9 metre-wide canvas, the cinder block residence set atop a large scaling rock face appears lonely and anonymous. The building is sensitively and eerily lit by the orange headlights of a car, unseen. The dusk setting and artificial lighting of the refugee camp reminds me of Hopper’s painting Gas (1940), which also uses natural and artificial light to create a sense of calm and unease while depicting the familiar scene of a petrol station at night. (While Hopper is often thought of as the painter of loneliness, his paintings actually depict something more like the uncanniness of lonely spaces.) Sami mentioned in an interview with The Guardian that his memories of his time spent as a refugee in Sweden are among his favourite, and that he returns to the country every month.

Mohammed Sami, 'Refugee Camp' (2022). Mixed media on linen. 290 x 590 cm. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of the artist and Modern Art, London

The themes of loneliness and absence are persistent throughout the exhibition, and combined with the elements of the sinister and the banal, they also add a sense of haunting to Sami’s work. Ten Siblings (2021) depicts a stack of ten mattresses, viewed up close and rendered in melancholic blues and greens, set against a dark background. In terms of haunting and absence, nowhere is the absence of figures more palpable than in this image. The ostensible portrait that the title promises only makes sense when considering the absence of any people in the image: the mattresses are a visual metonym for closeness, and one thinks immediately of the corporeal impressions left by each body that once lay on them. Then a follow-up question: where are those bodies now? It’s chilling to make the comparison, but the abandoned beds carry an echo of the endless inventories of suitcases, shoes, eyeglasses, prostheses and orthopedic braces discovered at the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The comparison feels even more apt considering the context of the Iraq War which rendered Sami a refugee in Sweden in 2007 before his resettlement in the UK.

Installation view of Mohammed Sami, _The Point 0_, at Camden Art Centre 2023. Photography by Rob Harris.

In another painting, Father Figure 1 (2019) shows a speckled tiled wall with a mirror reflecting the identical patterning on the wall opposite. The empty space is disrupted only by the offside appearance of a house plant. What is eerie about the apparent calm emptiness of the view is the feeling that someone or something is just out of view. While mirrors have traditionally been used as symbols for truth and light in medieval and renaissance painting, Velázquez, van Eyck and Manet all showed how mirrors can produce a dual reality: what we perceive versus what actually is, without any clear distinction between the two. Far from being a symbol of truth and light, Sami uses it to continue the theme of ambiguity and dual narrative in his work.

The final image in the exhibition, hung just outside the main rooms so you almost miss its modest presence, is Weeping Wall. A close-up area of faded patterned wallpaper, bordered by shadows like a vignette, appears ordinary enough except for the black spot where a picture nail materialises like a bullet hole. It then becomes clear that the blanched area of wallpaper is formerly where the mandatory portrait of Saddam would’ve been hung. Its absence creates a box of light that disintegrates into the shadowed edges of the painting.

Mohammed Sami, 'Weeping Walls III' (2022). Mixed media on linen. 75.5 x 65 cm. Photo by Rob Harris. Courtesy of the artist and Modern Art, London

There’s a saying that Stepanova quotes from her great-grandfather in her memoirs: ‘es redt zich azoi’, literally, ‘it is indeed so’, but the meaning is the exact opposite: ‘it is supposed to be so, but I don’t believe a word of it’. Sami’s paintings present us with a version of reality that is tinged with doubt — not at the actual events but at the unreliability of our own ability to recollect. “My paintings seek to capture the state of confusion that occurs because of the cut thread between reality and the imagination; between war narrated and war witnessed,” Sami tells us. Each painting demonstrates that there is no single authoritative reading; rather, there are layers of truth and layers of conceit. When we mine the past for truth, the only concrete feeling we are left with is its haunting absence.

A new iteration of The Point 0, featuring four paintings not shown in the Camden Art Centre exhibition, is currently on at De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhil-on-Sea, East Sussex until 28 August 2023. Visit De La Warr’s website for more information.