the feminist artist tackling consent with an “anti rape cloak”
The British artist’s impassioned, confrontational style has earned her comparisons to Tracey Emin, but her sense of humor is totally her own.
There's trolling (think vicious, misspelled comments), and then there are death threats - made all the more chilling for the fact that someone had to go to the trouble of buying a stamp or finding your email address, and not just hitting "tweet." British artist Sarah Maple has received both kinds of intimidation, but her 2008 oil painting "Haram," a self-portrait in which she poses in a hijab with a piglet, landed very real death threats in her inbox.
Maple was raised as a Muslim by her Iranian mother and English Christian father, and frequently explores her culturally diverse background in her work. And she never shies away from controversy. In 2007, when she was 23, Maple won a competition organized jointly by the Saatchi Gallery and Britain's Channel 4 to "find the most exciting and imaginative creative talent in the UK," and she came straight out of the gate with a work titled "The Opposite to a Feminist Is an Arsehole."
Once described as "the heir to Tracey Emin's throne," Maple has a knack for wrangling humor and power from the most unfunny or seemingly untouchable topics. She confronts everything from sexism and cultural stereotyping to the horrors of reality TV (earlier this summer she staged a Shakespearian Kardashian mashup, called Keeping up with the Kapulets). Her most recent project, an "Anti Rape Cloak," confronts the question of sexual consent.
The "Anti Rape Cloak" images attracted a lot of attention. How did the series come to be? And what do you hope it communicates?
I was part of a feminist activist art residency in London over the summer, run by a collective called The Sisters of Perpetual Resistance. The idea of the residency was for five artists to create an "object of nuisance." At the time, I had been reading a book called Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates and was really shocked to hear how huge the victim blaming issue is. I obviously had an understanding of it but, reading the book, I realized just how ingrained it is in our culture to blame the victims of rape, even the victims themselves [do]. It makes me so angry.
It's crazy to me that women are encouraged to be sexy and that their main value is [seen to be] their sexiness, but then if we comply with that idea, then [the thinking is that] we deserved to be raped. It's a contradiction that drives me mad. It's also ridiculous to think that men turn into rampant sex beasts on viewing a bit of female flesh! People should be able to wear and do whatever they like without the fear of being raped. My cloak is an ironic twist on the idea that if a woman was more "modest" it would somehow protect her from rape. This shows a complete lack of understanding about rape. So by wearing this garment I am supposedly completely safe from rape in any context and no longer "asking for it."
Has the reception of your artwork changed dramatically since you started out? And how has your own feminism evolved?
When I first started and was talking about feminism, I was often made to feel silly. I thought it was because I was young. But now I'm 30 and people still make those comments. You just realize that people either don't get the concept of feminism (which I think is simply gender equality) or they actually just hate women! I think there will always be those comments. But I think feminism is being talked about a lot more now and, because of social media, there are definitely great people who have your back! There's more of a community and it definitely wasn't like that when I first started. Over the years since I've grown, I've had the time to develop as an artist and the reception I get is really great; people want to talk about feminism. My feminism has evolved hugely, and on an academic level there is still so much to learn and take inspiration from.
I heard that someone once threw a brick through the window at one of your shows. Which piece of your work has caused the most controversy?
Yes, it was the window of the gallery where I had my solo show a few years back, and there were death threats. It was about a painting called "Haram." However, I did have some great support from the Islamic community for this work, too. That was the most extreme case for me personally, but the work people still get the most upset over is my piece "The Opposite to a Feminist Is an Arsehole." People think I'm insulting them. In a way, I am!
How do your parents react to your more explicit pieces?
My parents agree with the general concepts and I know they are proud but hate the way I am doing it. Probably because it's their daughter! My mum says the most hilarious things: last week when someone mentioned my piece "An artist and a female artist," in which I'm wearing a merkin I made, she said in her lovely sweet voice with a hint of despair, "I wish I'd never encouraged you. You make such crap." Classic!
What's the most moving or positive response you've ever had to a piece of your work?
When I had my solo show in Estonia, a woman about middle age was crying in front of my "Menstruate with Pride" painting. She explained to me later how much she connected with it which was a really lovely moment for me.
If women and men had equal rights, what do you think you'd be making work about? What else drives you to make things?
I think there would always be something going on in the world that would inspire me! I think I have this inbuilt desire to provoke and point out all those things in the world that we just accept because we're so used to them. Sometimes things just simply need to be pointed out! I often do this in my work, like with my Disney Princess jobs work or even with the "Anti Rape Cloak." I think after I became a feminist my eyes really opened for the first time.
There's so much humor in your work. Is there anything you'd never joke about?
I must say I did have a bit of a nervous feeling about the cloak. Because rape and abuse is such a serious thing to me and it makes me so infuriated, I did not want to have a laugh at it in any way. But I think the concept is clear and it seems to have communicated the message how I intended. So, no, I don't think there's anything I wouldn't make a joke about. Humour is such a powerful tool to make a point!
You recently released a book! What else have you been working on since then?
The main work was the cloak, and now that exhibition is up and running. I'm about to host an "Intergenerational Feminist Arm Wrestling" night with my friend artist Meg Mosley as part of that show, which should be fun! Then I'm working on my next solo exhibition about freedom of speech, which is such a huge topic, but I think I will start by reflecting back on when I had that brick thrown through the window and the knock-on effect that had on my work on a subconscious level. I just won a Sky Academy art scholarship to produce this work, so I'm really excited to get started!
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photos courtesy Sarah Maple