Memories are hazy, foggy things. The mind twists its own images and narratives with the passage of time.
Iraq-born artist Mohammed Sami is trying to make sense of that fog in his work. The paintings here are reworked, rehashed, recooked memories of life in war-ravaged Iraq, of being co-opted to paint propaganda images, of fleeing, of life in a Swedish refugee camp. He’s processing – slowly, messily – his own past and trauma.
A view out of a plane window shows only ochre sand: a last glimpse of home, but there’s nothing to see, only vast, dusty, empty nothingness. One painting shows an empty podium, another an empty golden armchair, another an empty room with only a carpet and a portrait of a soldier. Everything is empty, abandoned, derelict. These were podiums that were stood on and chairs that were sat on by powerful men, but now there is nothing. Where once there was strength, violence, control, now there is only a void, a memory of those things.
There’s a desperation to Sami’s drive to make sense of his memories
‘Ten Siblings’ shows ten stacked mattresses, once slept on but not any more. ‘Sandstorm’ shows a living room once lived in, but no longer. The emptiness is relentless. There are rails of unworn black clothes, unoccupied prayer rooms, washing hung up to dry. And not a single human figure anywhere, just these barren instants of personal, political history.
There are spidery shapes in lots of the works, shadows cast by palm trees or telephone wires, like these memories of his have become infested.
The big spaces of Camden Art Centre mean that Sami has also been able to go big. There’s a vast rock face beneath a refugee camp, a night sky dotted with bursts of tracer fire, and – in the best painting in the show – the endless vacant seats of an empty parliament. No speakers, no politicians, just a sea of seats like gravestones.
Lots of the paintings here are brilliant, some aren’t; a few are just too messy and ungraspable to work. But it doesn’t really matter, because the overall feeling of the show, the oppressiveness, the sadness, is genuinely powerful. There’s a desperation to Sami’s drive to make sense of his memories of brutal histories, unjust traumas. It’s not easy to look at, but the paintings emerging out of Sami’s haze are still achingly beautiful.