Fundamentally Flawed

A young artist receives death threats from Islamic extremists, despite being a devout Muslim herself

Art Counterpoints Islam The West War on Terror

Sarah Maple’s work seems designed to cause trouble: the young Muslim artist’s self-portraits show her wearing a headscarf and looking seriously at the viewer, but with one breast exposed, or cradling a piglet. Other pictures show her wearing a T-shirt with the words “I love Jihad”, or, again veiled, placing a banana suggestively in her mouth.

It is sad, although not a surprise, that she has received death threats and that the London gallery showing her work has had a brick through its window. She has been condemned by the Muslim Association of Britain, and the gallery has received abusive phone calls and emails. Her work has been criticised as provocation for its own sake, lacking artistic merit and mocking religious sensitivities for publicity.

In response, it has been argued that regardless of its quality or whether it is deliberate provocation, her artistic freedom of expression should be defended to the hilt. Even if her work relies for its power on its ability to shock and offend, she has the absolute right to create it. But funnily enough, that’s not what she thinks.

She is firm when I ask her if there should be any limits to freedom of expression, whether there is any artwork that she would protest against. “Yes – the Koran is the most holy thing, and we believe it is the word of God. To disrespect that in any way, I would never do, and it would be highly offensive.”

Ms Maple is serious about her religion, does not drink alcohol and sometimes wears a hijab. She was raised in England as a Muslim by her British father and Kenyan mother, and her art is an examination of this mixed background. She claims, although it’s hard to believe, to have been taken by surprise by all the fuss she has caused. She says that her work is more personal than political, and that her intention has never been to provoke, but rather to explore her own feelings of guilt and the difficulties of “wanting to be a good Muslim, wanting to please my family and please God, but not feeling like I was good enough”.

Clearly, she is not altogether comfortable with the image she has created, and points out that the exposed breast in her picture belongs not to her but to Kate Moss. “Obviously I didn’t want to paint my own, because that’s also against our religion, to show your breasts. Or even paint one, actually … I shouldn’t really have done it, but I wanted to make a point.” She explains that the picture of herself cradling a pig was not an attempt to shock or attract attention, but a way of exploring her own revulsion towards pigs, instilled by her religious upbringing.

When I mention the work of Theo van Gogh, the Dutch artist murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist who was angered by van Gogh’s film Submission, in which women’s breasts are visible through their transparent burqas, she does not seem to see a parallel between them. She dislikes his treatment of the Koran, which he shows projected on to a woman’s naked back: “I wouldn’t have done that.”