An Afternoon With Sarah Maple


This coffee house feels safe. My day, thus far, has been compromised with danger at every turn. I’m taking tablets that have the unfortunate side-effect of turning me into an angry monster; I’ve given myself the jitters with caffeine. I’m cradling another coffee, furnished with an extra shot. My mind is all over the place. My body is trying to stay still in the window seat of this café in Crawley. The medication that is, just for the meantime, festooning my thoughts with the dark flags of rage and depression, is helping me to drop cigarettes from my hourly routine. I’m trading some short-term mental illness for long-term physical health. I am one hour early for my meeting with Sarah Maple, and I need to get a grip.

Maple rose to prominence in 2007 winning the inaugural 4 New Sensations organised by Channel 4 television in the UK and supported by London’s Saatchi Gallery. The collection that won concentrated on two themes; the portrayal of women and Islam. Separately and together. Born in 1985 to a Muslim mother and Christian father, Maple is a practicing Muslim. Her fascination with the fractious relationship between the West and Islam, and what it means to be growing up Muslim in the UK are eloquently investigated hinting at the more controversial work that followed.

She’s late. I’m early. Always, I’m early. This has nothing to do with my upbringing, and the tardiness of others rarely bothers me. I like my own company, usually. But today I am nervous. If I was superstitious maybe I’d be less wobbly – the stars are, after all, aligned for a great interview. Maple is name checked in a national newspaper on the morning in question; the singer Kate Nash cites her work as “liberating”. I’d read some press about a recent collection of postcards that had left a charcoal stain on my mind, and I’d had no idea that she was the instigator of the project aimed at raising funds for the Feminism In London event. The two line email that I received confirming our appointment was somehow warm and friendly. But superstition isn’t my thing.

I look out of the window. Queen’s Square, the centre of Crawley, is depressing. The crimes of 1970s town planning are slowly being forgiven; architecturally, the town is on parole and the new library (designed so that the envelope of the building becomes shelving) and college building (with copper external tiles, a patina now developing) are testament to the community work all repentant criminals must undertake. But from where I sit, cubes of concrete house independent retailers and chains such as the one I am patronising.

I’m calm. I’ve let the coffee go cold, I’ve read the piece by Kate Nash and I’m fixated by a charming guy sat at an outside table with his friends. His pleated black, leather jacket is accessorised with fingerless, leather gloves. Those sat with him laugh easily, and passersby stop and talk, welcomed with hugs, wide smiles and a warmth I can feel from here. There is beauty everywhere. It’s ten past two, and Sarah will be here shortly, of that I’m sure. I’m no longer intimidated by my perception of her intellect, and I keep reminding myself that I’ve got many years on her. Charming Man stands up from his table and starts to twist a handmade cigarette into shape, before giving it life with flame and extravagantly bending backwards, like a lazy limbo dancer and blowing his lungful of smoke directly vertical, the lesser-spotted tobacco whale……..I look away, and the unmistakable black shaggy hair of Maple is bouncing from the far side of the square. This is it.

She should be on television is the first thought that enters my head as she approaches, without having seen me. On the basis that she is shorter than I had imagined and about 10 pounds lighter and only an idiot doesn’t know the maxim about TV cameras. She’s resolutely arty – splattered jeans, unkempt hair held in place by broadcast quality headphones. She spots me about 10 yards from the door and her genuine smile puts me at ease. Listening back to the conversation though, it’s obvious that I’m still a little high on my cocktail, and it takes a while for the conversation to flow from her without me bouncing all over it like an excited puppy. There is a simple reason to this; Maple is engaging and makes me feel immediately that my reading of her work is the correct reading. This is not a privilege that she affords all who interpret what she has to say; more of which later. I want to witter away about this piece and that, before I finally get around to letting her speak.

We talk about her agenda for the day; what she has planned other than talking (and listening) to me. Maple hopes to drop south to the town of Brighton, just over 20 miles down the road. There she will sell A2 reprints of her work. Her bold wit lends itself well to poster, and subsequently to student walls. As Maple says, “There are lots of young uns that would like to have my work, so I thought it would be nice to give them something.” I know she has her tongue firmly in her cheek, but still my mind wanders to, “Oh for fuck’s sake, she’s only 25.”

One only has to look back over the year so far and see that this confidence is anything but misplaced – she kicked 2010 off with a public service performance, warning people of the dangers of swine ‘flu with her posters. Naturally she was the model, wearing just the crimson-painted open mouth and lingerie of a porn model and posing appropriately for her attire and not at all appropriately for her message. “It’s very interesting how pretty much everyone I approached on the street had no problem with the poster and genuinely thought it was a good idea.” In February New York called and Maple eventually spent three months there, popping back to London to take part in Amnesty International’s discussion on the impact of religious fundamentalism on LGBT and women’s rights, as part of International Women’s Week. Like so many, the volcano interrupted Maple’s plans to return to the UK in April, meaning she missed both her musician fiancé’s birthday and the projections of Recovering Misogynist on London landmarks as part of BILLBORED. Her first German solo show in Munich, “Ich Liebe Dick” occupied June & July, and most recently she has organised the postcard auction for Feminism In London.

It was the publicity for this auction that first bought Maple to my attention. How did it come about? “It was bloody hard work, very hard to get people to sponsor it, because people don’t want to be associated with feminism. People were saying ‘This isn’t our brand, we can’t support this.’ I’m sorry, but your brand isn’t equality and human rights? Ok, fine. A lot of people that I asked to get involved had a similar attitude, but in the end I got amazing people.” Flicking through The Guardian, Britain’s most left-leaning ‘serious’ newspaper, I was stunned by what I saw in the Weekend Magazine, that supplements its main offering with on Saturday mornings, in early October. It published a selection of the 36 postcards that were eventually auctioned off by comedian and artist Miriam Elia and actress Jessica Stevenson. Maple’s contribution can perhaps be best described as a Lichtenstein-esque self-portrait; a mock horror photograph scribbled with the thought-bubble “I’M A FEMINIST!” Among the other lots was a deconstruction of sexism in music by Kate Nash (Download my new single “I’ll suck your cock for 79p”) and Hayden Kay’s identical bathroom signs. However, it was the submission by David Rusbatch that shocked me. A triptych of Pre-Feminism (a Frida Kahlo self-portrait), Feminism (a library image of Germaine Greer mid-debate) and Post-Feminism (a pornographic model, apparently covered in semen, staring blankly down the lens). “I think it makes a great point, but a lot of feminists said it went too far,” says Maple, before admitting, “I was very surprised to see it in the ‘paper.”

The current concentration on feminism is born from Maple’s journey to New York early in 2010, but it underwent some of its gestation in the works exhibited at Salon in London in 2008. “Haram” (“Forbidden”) is a self portrait of Maple wearing the hijab and cradling a piglet. Or another with the artist wearing the full niqab and a small pin button declaring “I Love Orgasms.” (This is exactly the kind of thing that my editor wants me to get into – “I want controversy, I can’t have a snoozer” are my instructions.) Naturally, I’m keen to explore this provocation and Maple’s adherence to Voltaire’s perfect phrase, “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

This has interested me; where is the line drawn on freedom of expression? Can something be said with a physical action, and at what point does it become illegitimate? Does Maple, with all the baggage that comes with being a liberal Muslim in these easily misunderstood times, defend a violent reaction to her work? Essentially, can you defend the right of others to smash the window of a gallery supporting your work, as happened? “I suppose so. It’s really…I’m really still torn on it, because people should obviously have the right to say and do what they want…..but threatening to kill me and my family, you know. On the Amnesty panel, I was the only person who said ‘I would think again about making the work as controversial, because is it really worth risking the lives of yourself, your family and your friends?’ You’ve got to really think about it, because I have had other ideas, but that backlash has really affected the work that I’ve made. Before, people were talking about me but they weren’t really talking about the controversial stuff. But now because of the greater exposure, people know me and I have to be more careful about what I make. But as I said on the panel, “If you’ve said this yourself, can you call yourself an artist?” You’re not being true to yourself, so it’s really difficult. I just don’t want to go through that experience again; it was the worst experience of my life.” Reading this, you’ll not hear the nuance, the breaks. This is difficult for her to talk about, and I’ve the feeling she has already gone further than she ever wanted to; she alludes to keeping this level of threat secret in her blog, but that’s the beauty of a diary – I can pick over at length what she has written as a stream of consciousness. Maple wants to move on from this as part of her influence. Her intellectual concentration is now feminism. Try as I might I just can’t get her to discuss Islam at any further. This seems to be primarily because the highway I try to steer the conversation down is beset with exit ramps to feminism – and like a magician’s audience I’m distracted and she’s pulled the wheel over. At times, I feel like I’m not even driving.

I ask about her familial background, hoping for some discussion of her mother’s faith. After leaving Kenya with her family, the artist’s mother met her future husband at work. It was love and marrying out was an extremely brave and single-minded action; not for her the almost compulsory route of arranged marriage and domesticity. I find myself suggesting that this was a feminist act in itself. She’s no magician, she is a hypnotist. Maple explores the issue on her blog, and in this instance religion and gender politics are completely entwined. She acknowledges that “My Mum is just the kind of person who would not call herself a feminist but is the perfect example of what a feminist looks like.” She has a firm belief that her daughter will succeed because she “is pretty.” She also worries a about the strength of her voice, her attraction to such dangerous, ambiguous work (for all its striking “in-your-faceness”, Maple’s work can be, and is, wilfully misunderstood; hence the threats), “She’s always, like, ‘Oh, why are you making this work, why do you have to do that?’, and my reply is ‘Mum, I’m exactly like you, I am you.’ I’ve just taken after her; she is so strong, she does whatever she wants. She doesn’t realise.”

I resolve to have one last run at Islam in her work; but I can tell Maple is a bit bored of the subject, and I’ve missed a glaring point, “I feel like I’ve moved on from that subject now, anyway. It was two years ago, a lot of the work is about 4 years old, I’ve got new stuff. I don’t want to…..sometimes I feel crass; I just don’t want to hold back. My work is also a response to my time at university and when I looked at a lot of artwork, I just didn’t get anything. I felt secluded and didn’t want to be a part of it. I appreciate that people have got a point with what they’re saying, but I just don’t get it. I felt that I didn’t want to be part of it, so when I show my work I want it to relate to people, I want anyone to get it. I don’t see the point of making it for a certain class of people. I want my work to be accessible. No art is for everyone, but I hope everyone can relate to the themes in my work.” We touch on sharia law, and how it seems to be anti-religious, but Maple’s eyes wander and she looks out of the window. “He looks just like Usher.” She is talking about Charming Man, “maybe it is Usher, I want a cat called Usher.” As we’re looking outside, I ask about her relationship with her hometown. She is happy to have a large, central studio, and this is, after all, home. But there are some things that aren’t right, “Can you see the children’s Ferris wheel? It is right outside Ann Summers.”

Next door to our cafe is a branch of Ann Summers. As an Englishman, I’m faintly aware of our stereotype in the wider world, especially American comedy, as a curious mix of the perverted and repressed, held together by terrible teeth. Ann Summers is a shop that seems to have the sole purpose of exploring this paradox. Sex shops used to be a study in a back-street, black-windowed lack of soul. In the 1990s Ann Summers bought the Rampant Rabbit to the high street with window displays of leather bikinis and chains, a sex shop aimed at women and therefore more respectable. I remember the shop from a photograph on Maple’s blog; complete with the incongruous toddler’s minature fairground ride stationed directly outside it. 4 year old children getting a view of the empty bandstand to one side and then head straight for the nipple tassels and lube on the other. It’s just wrong-headed, unpleasant and indefensible. “It’s so depressing because the other day it had that Lily Allen song ‘It’s Not Fair’; you know the sexual gratification one, that was playing and there were all these dads with their kids……”

Difficult questions just waiting to be asked of parents, or even worse, a corruption, innocence-thieving desensitising. There may be a point to this feminism stuff…..

Maple is a normal person; a great artist, funny company, a feminist, but normal. She loves Glee. This comes as no surprise, has she seen the cover of GQ this month? “No, why?” I tell her that Terry Richardson has shot a spread with three of the cast. She doesn’t know what to say first. “When I was a misogynist I wrote to Terry Richardson and asked to be a model. This was about 3 or 4 years ago. He sent me an email saying he’d like to meet me. What was I thinking? I mean he is awful, I can’t believe he is still in the business. What was the shoot like?” There is a not altogether sarcastic rising of fear in her voice, a realisation that nothing is sacred, “are the girls all over each other or something?” I explain the tableau, “Oh, why is he still in the business?” She is dismissive, disappointed in society. “American Apparel (Richardson has been the architect of their highly sexualised campaigns) are having a hard time at the moment, and I wonder if it because of their sexist advertising? Have you seen their adverts? Pictures of girls looking like they’re being fucked basically and it’s an advert for socks. It’s wrong. Look for porn if you want to look at porn.” Where do you stand on porn? “Well, if we’re going to have porn, and we are, let’s make it nice. Let’s make it so women aren’t fucked up the arse and in the mouth at the same time, and treated like shit. Let’s have a nice film, where the woman gets to come, which would be nice in porn, but never happens. Feminist porn.” You’ve thought about this issue, I guess. “There’s an amazing woman called Cindy Gallop that I met in New York. She has created the website Make Love Not Porn, her idea being that if we’re going to have porn, let’s make it so that it isn’t so very misogynist. I totally agree with that, we’re not going to be able to get rid of it forever. Porn makes me upset. It was New York. I took my friend, Jo, who’s a graphic designer. She was meant to be my assistant, but I didn’t really do anything, so she didn’t need to assist. We just hung out together for 3 months. I used the time to do a lot of networking, met loads of amazing feminists. Very inspiring and made me want to get more active in feminism when I got back.”

We’ve arrived at the feminist issue, what currently drives Maple. And it’s fun. I claim to have no feminist education at one point, “Do you believe in equal rights?” Of course I do. “Then you’re a feminist.” I bring up the subject of PETA, one of the other targets she gets in her crosshairs on her blog. Is Pamela Anderson confused when she states that by using her body for the latest PETA campaign, she is embracing post-feminism? “No. By doing that she is promoting one cause whilst putting another in jeopardy. The whole bleach blonde / big tits thing is hers and that is fed into our culture so much that it says ‘this is the only way you should look’. Did you see the Jenna Jameson ‘Too Much Sex Can Be A Bad Thing’ posters? I mean, the irony…..” One commentator on her blog post about PETA takes her to task about not being vegetarian. “There is a particular guy who always comments ‘You can’t say that if you’re not vegetarian because feminism is about equality and equality is about all beings,’ which I think is fair enough and I get his point. Since then I have become a vegetarian.” Have you acknowledged that influence to him? “No,” she laughs. The company of someone with firmly held beliefs, but someone still developing them is refreshing.

I’m near the end of my second Crawley coffee (I went for decaf this time, but insisted on a double shot for some reason), and Maple is scooping the marshmallows from the bottom of her hot chocolate; tellingly she says something about it being fine to have it, as it was bought for her. She still counts her calories and her blog entry about Self-Portrait With Kate Moss hints at a degree of body dismorphia. Clearly it is nonsense, and Maple seems very comfortable in her own skin.

The grey is settling over Crawley, England’s depressing autumn closing in. Can I see the studio, where the magic happens? I joke. We set off, and head for the workspace. It’s directly above a fabric shop, and the multi-cultural credentials are on display, with fabric for everything from saris to tablecloths available. The women behind the counter are very cheery and their reaction to Maple suggests that my impression is correct; she is a joy to be around.

Walking up the stairs she explains that she is working on a large piece that is her reaction to reading “Flow – The Cultural Story of Menstruation”. It’s an honour to see work at the very early stages, and Maple explains that all the faces looking on to her will be horrified by the red stain on her groin. I explain to her that the previous evening, I had dinner with a friend. An art historian, I asked her to give me her opinion on Maple’s work, insisted that it would be our high-minded dialogue for the evening. I wanted to delve into the feminism, elucidate the work, and come to an arguable conclusion that I could put to the artist the following day. “I love the cock pictures.” So much for the forensic examination of the artist and her catalogue. In fairness, it’s hard not to (no pun intended). An ongoing series of photographic portraits, taken by her fiancé, they have perfectly simple and self-explanatory titles, “Toothbrush cock”, “Key cock”, “Umbrella cock”. In each photo, Maple has the louche stance of exactly the kind of arrogant lad she is parodying. I take a photo of her holding my “dick-taphone” as a joke. It sums up the joyful, occasionally puerile, but ultimately funny artist. For all the previous evening’s attempts intellectual deconstruction of her work, we end up laughing at cocks. That’s pretty feminist, I reckon.

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One thought on “An Afternoon With Sarah Maple”

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