Saddam Hussein mural painter creates a world of turmoil – Mohammed Sami review

Camden Art Centre, London
Sami, a refugee from Iraq, learned his trade painting his country’s then leader. His disquieting works, full of tortured surfaces, feel like distillations of death and chaos

I thought I saw figures in black crossing the squares of the city and standing on its flat rooftops, the sort of figures painters casually sketch in to give a scene a sense of life and scale. But there was actually no one there, just black and white flecks floating down on the clusters of buildings under a dark sky. Ashfall, by Iraqi-born painter Mohammad Sami, is an unpeopled and silent aftermath.

Clogged, compressed, scraped down, sprayed, loosely brushed: the surfaces of Sami’s paintings have been through a lot. They evidence turmoil, however quiet the images they describe appear. This is deceptive. Sami’s paintings are filled with doubts and ambiguities. You can’t always be sure what you’re looking at and the paintings often say one thing, their titles another. A gilded, upholstered throne is called Electric Chair, and a huge painting of what appear to be piles of shirts (are they collars of military shirts?) is titled Study of Guts. In The Parliament Room, rows of unoccupied chairs recede into darkness. They look like headstones.

Trained as a painter in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, Sami was set to work on murals and portraits of the leader, to be hung in offices, public buildings and homes. When you see his recent versions of these portraits, decorating Sami’s painted interiors, Saddam’s face is never clear. There’s the uniform, the bulging shirt, the military belt, sidearm and medals, but from whatever angle you look the face remains indistinct, a blob of shiny black receding in the murk. In one painting, all we see is a nail protruding from the wallpaper and a ghostly pale rectangle where a portrait once hung. And in the painting of a podium there’s nothing between the angled, swan-necked microphones, except a blob of something indistinct.

Double-take images … Ten Siblings, 2021.
Double-take images … Ten Siblings, 2021. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art London and Luhring Augustine New York

Born in 1984, Sami became a refugee in Sweden, was granted asylum in 2007, and eventually spent a year studying in Belfast before completing an MA at Goldsmiths in London five years ago. Since then, his paintings have been bought by Tate and by MoMA in New York, the Imperial War Museum and other major institutions. This show will travel to the De La Warr Pavilion in Bexhill-on-Sea this summer. As a student in the UK, Sami was encouraged to paint the carnage and chaos he’d left behind: car bombs, wrecked buildings, bodies. This was what working through trauma was meant to entail. And if he was going to paint, then there was an idea that he should do so almost as a correspondent from a war zone.

Instead, he has focused on disquieting details, on the menacing shadow cast by a wilting pot-plant in a room, on light coming in under a door, a ruck in the carpet, shadows cast on a wall by a line of washing. There are a lot of shadows here. A gigantic spider on the ground is nothing but the shadows cast by power lines under a pole, spotlit by the sodium streetlamp. Cables and wires dangling through a hole in a ceiling is suddenly an apparition of a jellyfish, a deadly Portuguese man o’war sending its tendrils into the undersea dark of a cellar.

A pile of patterned mattresses fills a canvas, like an abstraction. It is called Ten Siblings. These double-take images might be taken as instances of paranoia. Paintings titled Meditation Room and The Praying Room can also be viewed as anterooms. Everything is either waiting to happen or has already happened or is being decided on the other side of the door. This is where you wait for death. There’s something to meditate and pray about.

Deadly … Jellyfish, 2022.
Deadly … Jellyfish, 2022. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art London and Luhring Augustine New York

The view through the aeroplane window shows nothing but dust, unremitting, eclipsing the horizon. We don’t know if this is a return, or an escape. Just as Sami’s paintings refer to the unseen and the implied, they lead us to other artworks. His territory and approach (though not his handling of paint itself) is not so different to that of Luc Tuymans, Wilhelm Sasnal and, at times, the earlier work of Peter Doig. Sami has referred to a visit to Tuymans’ studio in Antwerp, where the Belgian painter advised he paint the sound of the bullet, not the bullet itself. Unlike Tymans or Sasnal, Sami doesn’t use photographs in the development of his images, and works instead in the gap between memory and invention.

One can’t always know which is which. Sami’s paintings are ricochets, constructions, residues, distillations. One very large work here, Refugee Camp, depicts a building high up on a bluff, its walls catching dazzling yellow sunlight. The building is squeezed into the upper third of the canvas. The rest is an unscalable granite cliff. Up close, the flaking strata fills your vision and the camp itself is unseen, above your head.

In another very large painting, One Thousand and One Nights, we see a vast sky lit with incendiaries, tracers and distant blasts, the clouds illuminated and night turned to day. As much as I thought of those horrible televised attacks during the “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad in 2003, I got lost among the calmness of the trees and their reflections in the river, the lovely sky with its high clouds and the descending lights. It is almost a fireworks display, and is at once mesmerising and frightening. This to my mind is the best thing here, full of paradox. I thought of other painted skies – from Paul Nash to Tiepolo – and of explosions that make no sound.


Adrian Searle

The GuardianTramp

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