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Young Muslim Artist Stirs Controversy


By Grace Nasri, Iran Times


Fighting Fire with Fire No. 2
digital print - Photography - 29 x 36 cm

A young Muslim artist exhibiting her provocative and controversial work at a London gallery has received death threats, angry emails and phone calls and the gallery hosting the exhibit has been vandalized.


Sarah Maple, 23, is the artist whose work features photographs and paintings, which she says, address the issue of blending East and West. 


Maple, who told the Iran Times her "work is based on personal experiences, feelings and reflection on them," draws much of her inspiration from her Muslim faith and being raised as a Muslim, with parents of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds.  But while she says her goal is "to give [her] audience food for thought," her work has stirred much controversy.


"I believe comedy is a great tool to achieve this [food for thought], which is why I choose to portray my conceptual ideas through a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek approach," Maple said.


But to many, including the some members of the Muslim community and the Muslim Association of Britain, Maple's artwork is offensive, not light-hearted.


According to the Daily Telegraph of London, late last month, staff at the SaLon gallery began receiving menacing emails and phone calls.  Shortly after, a woman wearing a burqa reportedly visited the gallery and threatened its staff.  A few days later, the gallery was vandalized; the glass front of the gallery was smashed and the gallery now has 24-hour police protection.


Gallery director Samir Ceric said he was "sad, upset and disappointed" at the way art was being treated and called the violent reaction to her work an "attack on freedom of expression."


Maple, whose mother was born in Kenya but had Iranian roots and whose father was British, told the Telegraph, "The Islamic-themed pieces I've done were about integrating Eastern and Western cultures and questioning whether we can successfully combine the two, or whether we need a bit more understanding."


Some of her photographic self-portraits feature her in a headscarf in provocative and suggestive poses and one painting shows the artist in a headscarf with a bare breast.  Another features a woman in a headscarf holding a pig.


"We expected people to ask questions but we didn't expect anything like this," Ceric told the BBC, adding that he believed Maple's work was being misrepresented and dealt with religion but also politics, celebrity culture "and so many other subjects."


But not everyone, or even all Muslims for that matter, objected to her work.  For one, Maple told the Iran Times, "My family is extremely proud of me and doesn't think I should stop what I'm doing."


One Muslim woman named Moira sent the artist an email thanking her.  "I just stumbled across your work on the Internet and I hope I can express to you what some of the images have done for me. I am over here in the USA ... and I am a new convert to Islam.... Without realizing it consciously, I began to think that Muslims don't do certain things like: go to the movies, sit at the beach, go to amusement parks, etc.  The burqa chic is fabulous! It speaks to the ridiculousness of this clothing in context to real situations but it also speaks to the invisibleness that the clothing creates by removing the wearers of the clothing from certain public places; as though Muslims only exist in a certain context which is actually a self-inflicted stereotype. As Muslims, we are often told there is only one way to be a Muslim, which conveys a sort of sameness and that translates into a sort of invisibility. Being Muslim is not a monolithic concept, and your art boldly conveys that."


Husam, another Muslim supporter of Maple's work, wrote her, "I decided to have a look at your official website after I saw an article in an Arabic newspaper about your latest exhibition in London, and the controversy it created with some Muslim organizations in the UK & abroad.  As soon as I saw the article, along with a few samples of your photographs/paintings, I was angry and furious-thinking it's just another person attacking Islam.  But when I checked your website and saw 'all' your artwork, it has given me more depth into the bigger picture & meanings of your artwork and the messages that you are trying to deliver to people, coming from a similar background of a mixed religion family.  Some of your work made me giggle, some made me laugh, and the rest made me think and wonder.  This is, I guess, what art is all about. Well done."


Another Muslim supporter wrote, "I would just like to show support for your work. As a fellow Muslim I think your exhibition is incredibly important-especially for young British Muslims who have grown up in the UK-and I am ashamed how fellow Muslims have treated you and your family.  I don't believe this artwork is offensive to Islam and believe the voice of disapproval comes mainly from those born and brought up in very conservative countries. I hope you continue your work and will not be discouraged by the ignorant people that look for excuses to be offended."


The gallery said it would continue exhibiting the artworks by Maple, who was born in England, until its scheduled end November 23.


"As a result of our decision to continue showing her work in the gallery, Sarah is now being recognized worldwide as a groundbreaking artist of the next generation; her generation and her art has had an appeal beyond the Muslim community and in a lot broader terms and spectrum," Ceric told the Iran Times.


Maple told the Iran Times, "I hope that people will see the humor and the intelligence in the work. It is about the combination or clash of cultures and struggling to be faithful to both. It is asking if you can find a balance and still be faithful to your religion and culture. I am not saying all western Muslims feel this way, but it is how I, and many others, feel. This is heightened because of my mixed parentage.


"I also believe people should not confuse culture and how they have been brought up with the essence of the religion itself.  It is also about perception and what is stereotypically seen to be a good Muslim on appearances. I believe it is what you believe and feel inside which makes you a good Muslim and I think people should have confidence in their beliefs and see my art with an open mind and consider what I am saying," Maple said.


Maple was born in 1985 outside London.  She received her BA in Fine Arts at Kingston University and in October 2007, won '4 New Sensations,' a new art prize for graduates voted by the public online, organized by Channel 4 and The Saatchi Gallery.  Maple's work can be found at:


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