Sarah Maple Exposes the Abuse of Freedom of Speech
MEANS is proud to feature three treatments on the role of feminism in contemporary art today. We begin with a profile of Sarah Maple from The Creators Project:
When London-based artist Sarah Maple's oil on canvas painting, Haram, went up for exhibition, vandals threw a brick through the gallery’s window in an attempt—and failure—to break in. The 2008 painting features the artist depicted in red and white Islamic dress, cradling a baby pig, an animal which, as Maple explains, “is a symbol of disgust in Islam.” “The death threats followed from that,” Maple tells The Creators Project. “[When it happened,] The media focused mainly on this picture, but I think it was a general anger.” No stranger to criticism, Maple once toured the U.S. in an Anti Rape Cloak (below).
Now, the artist is wandering around London wearing a sandwich board of criticism for her new project, Comment is Free. The project is Maple’s reaction to the tricky territory of online self-expression. On each of the four days of The Other Art Fair, Maple will invite visitors to comment on a selection of previous works on display at her booth. Then, she will choose a random comment and write it on the sandwich board, which she will wear for the remainder of the day.
“Commenting online and the fine line between freedom of speech and abuse is a really important thing for me to look at for the new show,” Maple tells me. “For the first time ever, you can say anything you want to anyone, no matter how hateful it is.”
Maple experienced the sentiment firsthand after her interview with The Guardian in 2015 went viral, accruing over 11,000 shares and 330 comments. “We are now part of this culture where we are encouraged to share and comment on everything,” the artist says. “Wearing a sandwich board is a bit like a public humiliation […] I wanted to highlight the impact this may or may not have on the artist.”
Like Haram, many of Maple’s works investigate social interpretations, exaggerations, and manipulations of religious maxims. Comment is Free, in fact, is only the latest in the young artist’s rapidly accumulating oeuvre, which mobilizes photography, painting, performance art, and mixed media to articulate issues like religion, period shaming, Islamophobia, reality TV fetishes, rape, and, most recently, freedom of speech.
Born in England in 1986 to a white, British father and an Iranian Muslim mother, Maple was raised Muslim, attending mosque as a young girl and dutifully studying the Qur'an. When she reached school-age, her parents enrolled her in a Catholic primary in Eastbourne. There, as a child from mixed parentage and in the religious minority, she was exposed to the experience of being an outsider. It was a natural step for her, upon graduating with a BA in Fine Art from Kingston University in 2007, to transpose these nuanced experiences into art. “I became more interested in contemporary art and realized the power art has to create cultural shifts and actually say something about the world,” she explained. “It was this that motivated me to become an artist, it was a way to give me a voice about the things I care about...