Mohammed Sami's paintings act as a means of exploring 'belated memories', often taking the form of tactile still lifes and landscape scenes that on second glance reveal a much more sinister personal history.Read More
Sami was born in Baghdad, Iraq. Growing up through the conflict of the Iran-Iraq war, his earliest memories were of the 'ink black darkness' of his family home, created by the MDF boards that covered the windows in an attempt to avoid becoming a missile target.
Despite criticism from his father, Sami studied drawing and painting at the Institute of Fine Arts in Baghdad, graduating in 2005. He went on to work at the Iraq Ministry of Culture, recovering artworks that had been removed from Saddam Hussein's Centre for Contemporary Art. The job took a toll on his health, causing him to have a minor stroke at the age of 22.
In 2007, Sami fled Iraq, fearing for his life, and sought asylum in Gusum, Sweden. While Sami was at the refugee camp, his father had a sudden change of heart and sent him all of his brushes and art materials, reminding him to keep painting no matter how dire his personal situation was. Sami recalls this as a special time, as it was the first time in his life that his father believed in his career as an artist.
After gaining residency in Sweden, Sami moved to Northern Ireland and earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts with first-class honours from Ulster University, Belfast. He then was awarded a scholarship to Goldsmiths College, London, where he completed his Master's degree in 2018. It was here that he began painting autobiographically, inspired by Peter Levine's book Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past (2015), whose central argument questions the reliability of personal memories in making sense of past experiences.
Mohammed Sami's practice is deeply involved with painting's capacity to record the ghosts of people or events long past, often in oblique and unexpected ways. His large-scale paintings recall the Al Báath murals decorating the walls of his school in Iraq, with multi-textured paint application that verges on abstraction, giving his enigmatic interiors personal meaning that is still ambiguous enough for the viewer to arrive at their own conclusion.
Prior to the autobiographical works he began at Goldsmiths, Sami's large-scale paintings were often entirely abstracted, combining swathes of dark acrylic paint with gestural strokes of vivid white and mixed media. His mixed-media work Do It! (2011) suggests a rock thrown against a shattered mirror behind a barbed wire fence, which viscerally communicates his experiences of war-torn Iraq. Similarly, in Explosion I (2011), a three-dimensional plume of smoke emerges from the canvas, confronting the viewer by physically intruding into the space.
In 2019, Sami was awarded the Hottinger Prize at the Mall Galleries' FBA Futures exhibition, which showcases the best in new figurative drawing, painting, sculpture, and printmaking from graduate artists. His winning painting Unedited Still-Life (2018) depicts an interior scene whose dimensions have been uncomfortably altered. A table stands in the centre surrounded by smashed crockery, a gravity defying-spoon balances on its edge and a phone is hanging off its hook. The floor panelling behind takes the place of both the wall and the floor, effectively flattening the space, toying with multiple perspectives to add an unsettling edge to an already discomforting scene.
In 2021, Sami's solo exhibition Apocrypha was held at Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, London, his first at the gallery. In the same oblique way as Unedited Still-Life, the featured works toy with ideas of trauma and memory by removing the people involved and hinting instead through semiotics. 'Apocrypha' is a word to describe 'reports not considered genuine,' and ties into a tradition in Middle Eastern literature of saying one thing but meaning another, according to Sami. Skin (2020) shows rolled up carpets stacked against one another—both a metaphor to their intimate cultural ties and also reminiscent of wounded flesh in the flecks of red and white across their surface.
In 2019, Sami was awarded the Hottinger Prize at the Mall Galleries' FBA Futures exhibition for his painting Unedited Still-Life (2018).
Mohammed Sami has been the subject of both solo exhibition and group exhibitions. Solo exhibitions include Apocrypha, Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, London (2021); JAMM ART Gallery, Kuwait (2013); Dag Andersson Gallery, Norrköping (2012); Al Khanji Gallery, Aleppo (2006); Alwasity Gallery, Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Baghdad (2005).
Group exhibitions include There Is Always Light, Mead Gallery, Warwick Arts Centre, Warwick (2021); Homeplace, V.O Curations-Mayfair, London (2021); Towner International, Towner Eastbourne, Eastbourne (2020); Stilla liv (Still life), Gallery Magnus Karlsson, Gotland, Sweden (2020); Time-out, Patrick Heide Contemporary Art, London (2020).
Annie Curtis | Ocula | 2022