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from anti rape cloaks to page 3 models sarah maple’s art will shock you

Ahead of her forthcoming exhibition, I Disagree With What You Say, we catch up with the artist to talk sex, race, and what it means to be a woman.

by Tish Weinstock
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30 March 2016, 10:20pm

Whether she's depicting herself as menstruating in public or inserting an image of herself as a Page 3 model, guerrilla style, into various copies of The Sun, feminist and multi-media artist, Sarah Maple, isn't afraid to shock. After all, who could forget her 2015 performance piece, Anti Rape Cloak, a damning commentary on the terrible realities of rape culture? Or her 2008 exhibition, which centred upon Sarah's mixed racial heritage (her father is white British while her mother is an Iranian Muslim, she had both an Islamic upbringing and attended a Catholic school in Eastbourne) and the conflict she felt as a result? Using humour and satire to address these somewhat delicate issues - from paintings of her wearing a hijab, decorated with a badge saying "I <3 orgasms" to one of her cradling an inanimate pig (eating pork is strictly forbidden in Muslim culture, while touching a live pig is permissible) - the show sent shockwaves through the community, resulting in a gallery window being smashed and an onslaught of death threats directed at the artist. Using her own image, and drawing on her experience as a Muslim woman, Sarah tackles society's many taboos, elevating those previously oppressed, and giving voice to those long since silenced. Ahead of her forthcoming exhibition, I Disagree With What You Say, the culmination of her Sky Academy Arts Scholarship, which she was awarded last year, we catch up with the Kingston graduate to talk about sex, race, and what it means to be a woman.

Your work touches on various themes such as motherhood, the menstrual cycle, beauty, gender, and feminism, what is it that you're trying to say about the female experience?

I want to challenge deep-seated ideas about what it is to be a woman. There are so many unconscious attitudes towards them; I want to break that mould.

You also include references to ethnicity, could you elaborate a bit on this?

Much of my early work reflected my Muslim upbringing in a very direct way. I used humour to look at the duality of my upbringing (my mixed parentage) and the conflict I felt because of it. This occasionally caused me a bit of trouble; I think people thought I was poking fun at religion but that was never the case, it was more about myself really.

A lot of your work like your paintings is very provocative, is it your aim to shock?

When I first started showing my work, I think I felt I had to deny this. But I do want to prod and provoke people. If I don't provoke a response then I don't see the point really. I love making people laugh too; it makes me happy. But I love that my work could alter someone's viewpoint in some way. Sometimes I just like to point out the obvious as this can be the most obvious way to highlight how ridiculous something is. I used to accept a lot at face value but when I discovered feminism it helped me not only to question the role of women, but to also question preconceived ideas relating to all things in society.

What is the significance of placing your own image within your art?

I have been thinking about this a lot recently as there are so many women about my age that photograph themselves. I think in a way it is taking ownership of our image. When we photograph ourselves, we have complete control over how we want ourselves, our gender, our femininity, our sexuality to be perceived by others. Every day we are surrounded by examples of what we should be, what we should aspire to be. In our self-portraits we can be what we want...I find a tremendous power in that.

What's the story behind your Anti Rape Cloak?

The work was created as part of the Sisters of Perpetual Resistance residency in 2015. In this residency we were asked to make an 'object of nuisance' which was inspired by the suffragettes who were patronisingly described as a 'nuisance'. I came up with the cloak as I have had many friends experience sexual assault in some way. Sadly, none of them reported this to the police. I think part of the reason for that was because they felt they were making a fuss or had somehow brought it on themselves. This really upsets me. It's very odd that women are encouraged to be sexy; we are told constantly by the media that our sexiness dictates our value and worth but then if we dress sexily we deserve to be raped. It's a contradiction I can't get my head around. I want people to rethink their views about rape and abuse. No one is ever asking for it. We shouldn't be asking women to cover up, we should be educating people about consent and they should not be raping! I made the cloak and then I took it on an adventure, photographing myself in various places, the Mojave Desert, Las Vegas, a bedroom, a carpark, the subway....

What was the idea behind You Could Have Done This?

I was taking the micky at that particular phrase when people look at art and say, "I could have done that" or "my three year old could have done that". So I was turning it around really, taking ownership of that. When I first showed it, one of the gallery assistants (who was clearly not a fan of the show!) got really drunk at the opening and actually shouted angrily to one of my friends "I could have done that!" in all seriousness, whilst pointing at this piece. It really tickled me.

You recently won funding and mentoring through Sky Academy Arts Scholarships, how has this impacted your work?

The mentoring has been amazing, it's great to feel like I have people to turn to in terms of professional advice and feedback on my work in progress. Money also gives you so much freedom and it's just one thing I don't have to think about for a while, I can make exactly what I want.

What can we expect from your I Disagree With What You Say exhibition?

There will be a return to provocation; I feel much more empowered to say the things I want to say. The show is inspired by the reaction against my 2008 exhibition, which focused on my Islamic upbringing. People ended up attacking the gallery, a window was smashed and I had death threats. At the time I maintained I was strong and would never back down from saying what I felt needed to be said. However, I have not focused on my Muslim upbringing since. When the Charlie Hebdo attacks happened, I wondered if I had somehow subconsciously censored myself all those years. I am also interested in how feminists are silenced online when they get death and rape threats. This is something I am focusing on in the show, I have been doing a lot of research about freedom of speech and I'm really excited to make this new work. There will be some interactive art, performance, painting and photography. The show will be later this year and the dates will be up on my website soon.

What are your plans for the future?

At the moment I am working on the new show, I am doing a performance at The Other Art Fair in April and I am working on a commission for the Tate in May. After that I would love to do another artist residency.

www.sarahmaple.com