Mohammed Sami in conversation with Sohrab Mohebbi, June 2021
SM: I know you’re interested in literary devices that imply a certain doubling or fracturing, a kind of opening-up of something into its other. For instance, you once said something about resembling and its resemblance. This relationship seems to be at play in your painting. It reminds me of discussions around abstraction in painting or, more generally, opacity in artistic practices. Can you talk about the allusive aspect of Arabic literature and how those literary devices relate to your practice?
MS: As an artist, when you’re a first-hand witness of extreme events, you need a strategy to slow down the stereotypical image of trauma and conflict in your work. Otherwise, you may end up being a reporter or mimicking the collective memory – not to mention how some depictions might pass on a mild version of the trauma to society. The subject matter of trauma comes from the Middle East; it often carries accusations and outrage. Therefore, I apply allusive linguistic strategies from Arab literature – puns, euphemisms and metonyms – to imbue the narrative of my paintings with a double meaning. This allows viewers to reach their own conclusions when they look at my work and gives me the freedom not to choose one side of the coin.
SM: What’s the Arabic term for this kind of pun?
MS: Tawriya refers to a standard rhetorical device that involves playing upon words that are similar in form but different in meaning. Tawriya comes from the Arabic finite verb warra: hiding something by showing something else. It defines an expression with double implications: close and distant in such a way that it shows the near and hides the far. It occurs when the speaker emphasises one of the meanings a word may have and neglects the other. It’s also worth mentioning that translating Arab poetry is like making fire with no heat, because the meaning usually loses its structure.
SM: Can you give an example?
MS: I read literature and poetry more than I visit exhibitions, and I have a passion for the Palestinian national poet and author Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish’s poems rarely refer directly to Palestinian crises or conflicts: he uses puns, metaphoric language and allegory to hide the genuine meaning of his poems. In As if I Were Joyful 1 there’s a dialogue between the author’s two selves as the struggle of a person who’s lost his home and wrestled in exile in the West. There are no apparent signifiers that might guide the reader in discerning which home Darwish is referring to, as this might be too specific for the general reader’s sympathies. Therefore, many allusions to objectivity have been used to evade the ‘truth’, providing detail that’s at once specific and vague, such as the features that populate domestic spaces – corridors, mirrors, door buzzers and tiles. The methods of articulating loss and conflict in Arab literature have informed the narratives in my paintings. I try to give them a specific capacity to depict what isn’t there. My attention has moved from direct images of trauma to everyday objects, shadows and the banal as the lowest category in the history of painting, to substitute the extraordinary with the ordinary.
SM: In your work, we barely ever see people. We see landscapes, still lifes and interiors, and yet the figure is absent. We ask, where is the subject, and how is it formed? Who does it respond to? I think, in your painting, you address the subject through his/her absence.
MS: When I talk about ‘human depiction’, I must address the limits of narrative in contemporary painting. Since the invention of the digital camera and video, the scale of narrative in contemporary painting has shrunk. I think there are a few reasons for this, one of them being the immediacy of the image brought about by our reliance on these technologies and the lack of subtlety that exists within them. The second is that the human figure may expose the painting’s secrets and turn it into a didactic illustration or poster. I believe painting is timeless; it’s nearness and alienation and works both with and against time. Painting is like drinking all the sea in order to define a cup of water. I understand that this might make it sound complicated or as if I am trying to achieve the impossible, attempting to marry irreconcilable positions, but to put it in other words, the act of painting is the act of seeking more for less. There must be respect for these standards and limitations in painting. Thus, the absence of the figure, for me, is a gesture of respect and restraint with regard to what the act of painting is allowed to adopt.
SM: Your work invokes images of things one might have seen or experienced but didn’t quite register at the time. When you suddenly see them in your paintings, they connect to the fragility of life in passing. Is that related to the concept of ‘belated memory’?
MS: A belated memory is a process that requires time to recollect the past’s effect without blemishes. In psychology, it’s referred to as ‘episodic memory’, which implies a kind of first-person subjectivity – this has also been termed ‘autonoetic consciousness’. The process of its recollection is based on gaps. In other words, ‘I forgot to remember to forget’. It’s like the term ‘there’, which is so close to the term ‘here’. 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. The invisible element I mentioned above masquerades in light and shadow, banal and everyday objects. The memory appears as elements drowning at a deep distance: they neither survive nor sink but are held in suspension. You look at them. You laugh until the tears run down from your eyes; you’ll never know if you’re sympathising with these memories in the painting or laughing at yourself. This is how I feel when I forget to remember to forget. For example, take the shape 0 in my painting, The Point 0 (2020). People explain it as a yellow egg; some believe it’s a view of dust from a plane’s window, which looks like a 0. The truth is dissolved between ‘here and there’, and new meanings grow above other senses like warts on the skin. Gradually, we turn our back to the boring details of ordinary memory while drowning in formal language – the painting’s title, and the artist’s background, for example. This raises another question from the rubble of our inability to engage fully with the image: do we really need these details to derive meaning from what we encounter? Once you have an awareness of the past, something interesting happens – you activate a different part of the brain. I spoke to you about this before – that belated response. Once you feel that you’ve lost interest in your history, in the violence, in what you’ve seen, something will creep up on you. It creeps up through the objectivities, through the light and shadow, through perfumes, through a word your girlfriend says that connects you to a long history of violence, which might exist or not. That’s why, when you ignore a long history of conflict, and you paint just a shadow, the details of the 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 with them because it’s not about traumatic things – it’s more like a haunting. It’s when the memory haunts and changes different objects.
SM: Your work pictures fleeting images that are about to disappear, as if you’ve captured them just before they fade away. We talked about your relationship with memory, but maybe it’s also about your relationship with time?
MS: It’s both. These are very important questions because they’re at the core of the process of memory. Again, it connects us to the term ‘belated response’, in the sense that you don’t respond immediately to the image: ‘I’ve got it, and now I have to paint it.’ The thing is, there’s an attempt to reach for something and it fails. Then you try again and you fail again. That’s why these series are born every year – the refugee camps, the execution rooms – because the person behind these paintings is trying to reach something, and he fails, perhaps because the belated response might be deceiving him. It can disappear and then return the next year, as a continuation of the same subject matter, the same depiction, but instead, the focus shifts to the carpet, or to the table, because you remember that the reflection of the table caused you pain, so then you turn your attention to the table. This is the strange thing with memory: you just sit down and things come creeping up to you. It’s very important not to assume this is voluntary. I’m interested in ‘sense memory’, as Jill Bennett, the Australian author, defines it – when you’re unable to remember something, or when you forget, and things happen. Let’s change it from remembering to forgetting. All of these paintings are about what I forget. When the forgetfulness, or the oblivion, is harassed by remembering, this is what happens.
SM: Do you work in series, or do you work on one painting at a time?
MS: Most of my artworks are part of a series; it’s like a process of organic growth; it’s part of this dance and the need to let go. However, I always have to go through this process with vigilance, to avoid imposing the force of unnecessary detail, not exploiting the recollection of ‘nothingness’ (nothingness in contemporary painting is the power that defines our situation, I believe). In this way, over the years, I allow belated memories to extend like an oil stain, stretching across this series of paintings.
SM: Maybe we can connect this to embracing misunderstanding: to using a painting not to generate an understanding of something, but rather to misunderstand better. Maybe it relates to the notion of Tawriya and a move away from constant transparency and the immediacy of the image?
MS: That’s correct. I think that’s why I try to embrace the signifiers we discussed. Tawriya enriches the narrative of the painting with double meaning or duality in its reading. I find it essential to move beyond superficial representations, away from the immediacy of the image or the impact of illustration. By doing that, I’m not encouraged to leave the canvas plane in order to reach the transparency of nothingness. I’ve mentioned the element ‘nothingness’ in our discussion so let me define this more clearly: nothingness is when the waitress notices that your coffee is empty and offers to fill it one more time, but you simply refuse because you believe the sun fills the other half of the cup. You keep gazing at the content of nothingness in search of meaning. This is how the transparency of nothingness reproduces its power in contemporary painting.
An earlier version of this conversation appeared in the exhibition catalogue Is it morning for you yet?, the 58th Carnegie International, ed. Sohrab Mohebbi (Pittsburgh: Carnegie Museum of Art, 2022).
‘I am from there, I am from here, but I am neither there nor here. I have two names which meet and part... I have two languages, but I have long forgotten – which is the language of my dreams’ Mahmoud Darwish
1 Mahmoud Darwish, ‘As if I Were Joyful’, Almond Blossoms or Beyond, Northampton, Massachusetts: Interlink Books (2009).
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Azoulay, Ariella. Death’s Showcase: The Power of Image in Contemporary Democracy, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press
Bennett, Jill. Empathic Vision: Affect, Trauma, and Contemporary Art (Cultural Memory in the Present), Redwood City: Stanford University Press (2005).
Bouleau, Charles. The Painter’s Secret Geometry: A Study of Composition in Art, New York: Dover Publications Inc. (2014).
Darwish, Mahmoud. Memory for Forgetfulness, August, Beirut, 1982. Berkeley: University of California Press (2013).
Gibbons, Joan. Contemporary Art and Memory: Images of Recollection and Remembrance, New York: I.B. Tauris (2009).
Levine, Peter A. Healing Trauma, Boulder: Sounds True Inc. (2008).
Levine, Peter A. Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, Berkeley: North Atlantic Books, US (2015).
Rugoff, Ralph. Scene of the Crime, Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press (1997).
Scarry, Elain. The Body in Pain, New York: Oxford University Press, US (1987).
Born in Baghdad, Iraq, in 1984, Sami lives and works in London, UK. Having completed studies in drawing and painting at the Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, he worked at the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad, before being granted asylum in Sweden in 2007. Sami graduated from Belfast School of Art in 2015, and earned an MFA at Goldsmith’s College, London, in 2018. His work has been featured in numerous group exhibitions, including: the 58th Carnegie International, Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburg, USA (2022–23), The London Open 2022 at Whitechapel Gallery, London, UK (2022); Mixing It Up: Painting Today at Hayward Gallery, London, UK (2021); Stilla liv (Still life), Gallery Magnus Karlsson, Gotland, Sweden (2021); The Sea is the Limit, York Art Gallery, UK and Virginia Commonwealth University School of the Arts, Doha, Qatar (2018–19) and The Culture Night of Norrköping City, Norrköping Art Museum, Sweden (2011). Sami’s paintings are held by the Arts Council Collection, London; The Boijmans van Beuningen Museum, Rotterdam; The Blenheim Art Foundation, Woodstock; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; the Government Art Collection, London; the HE Museum, Foshan; Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Imperial War Museum, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Tate, London; and the Permanent Collection of York Art Gallery, York.
Sohrab Mohebbi is Director of Sculpture Center, New York, and curator of the 58th Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, 2022–23.
The Point 0 is organised by Camden Art Centre in collaboration with De La Warr Pavilion where it will tour between 10 June and 3 September 2023.
We are grateful to all those who have generously supported this important exhibition: especially our Lead Donors AMA Collection and Sacha Janke and Andrew McCormack; and to the members of our Mohammed Sami Exhibition Circle – Per Anders Ovin, Sam Schwartz, Karen Smith, Matt Symonds, and the Elie Khouri Art Foundation; to Angie Koulakoglou who supported our File Note publication; to The Embassy of Sweden in London; and to all those who wish to remain anonymous.With special thanks to our transport partner TFA London; Stuart Shave / Modern Art, London; and Luhring Augustine, New York.