The Maple Effect: Sarah Maple’s Art

I’ve always loved viewing art, especially at museums, though I’ve never considered myself savvy enough to ‘get it,’ always resorting to a laywoman’s interpretation. However, I’ve learned that regardless of what the artist intended in his/her piece, the observer/viewer/art connoisseur will see what s/he wants. Therefore, art can be a very controversial arena for expressing oneself, because the message of the piece never seems to be in anyone’s control. Mind you, is it ever meant to be? So then how do we, we as Muslims, interpret Sarah Maple‘s art – her paintings and her photographs?

Sarah Maple, referred to as the next Tracey Emin (an acclaimed Turkish-British artist known for her provocative autobiographical art) was mentioned briefly before on MMW with a promise to come back to her art at a later time. Considering she’s caused some controversy as of late with her recent painting of a Muslim woman cradling a pig, this seemed like the right time to get back to her.

So who is Sarah Maple? As described on her website:

Sarah Maple was born in 1985 and grew up in Sussex, where she lives today. She did her BA in Fine Art at Kingston University in October 2007, won ’4 New Sensations’, a new art prize for graduates, voted by the public online, organised by Channel 4 and the Saatchi Gallery.

Much of her inspiration originated from her being brought up as a Muslim, with parents of mixed religious and cultural backgrounds. Understandably, issues of identity are of huge interest to her.

Maple states that the aim of her work is: “to give my audience food for thought. I believe comedy is a great tool to achieve this, which is why I choose to portray my conceptual ideas through a light-hearted and tongue-in-cheek approach”.

Maple’s work often takes on fabricated scenes and situations and she admits she is affected by the art world, as well as from her general surroundings; including friends, family, television and popular culture. She is also greatly moved by music, comedy and literature. She believes these influences are truly woven into her art, and provide the platform upon which her work is realised.


Image via

Her paintings are intricate and detailed, capturing the object of depiction well, whether it be Kate Moss or a Green Chair. There is no doubt that Maple is an extremely talented woman and this talent radiates through in her controversial works as well.

And controversy has hit her most recent work. It seems Maple’s recent painting has not been seen as so ‘light-hearted’ by some Muslims. The painting which has bothered some Muslims (seen to right) depicts a woman in a headscarf (who looks like Maple herself) cradling a pig. The painting, which is to be displayed at SaLon Gallery later this week, has irked many Muslims in the U.K. From the Telegraph:

Already, Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, tells Mandrake that his organisation plans to visit the SaLon Gallery, in Notting Hill, west London, to demand that it remove Maple’s painting when it exhibits it next week.

Many of the Muslims who oppose the painting feel that Maple simply wants to provoke. They feel that Muslims should keep a distance from pigs and this painting violates that unspoken/unwritten rule.

Maple has stated that she wants to make people think. And this painting could bring about many different thoughts. We already know what some Muslims in the U.K. think. But what else could this painting be saying?

Perhaps she is depicting a reconciliation between two lifestyles – the Muslim one and the non-Muslim. Or perhaps she is making a statement about the acceptance and/or tolerance levels of Muslim women as opposed to Muslim men. Or maybe this is an expression of how she feels about her own identity as a Muslim living in the West. Who knows? If Maple wants to encourage thought then there very likely are multiple messages in this painting. To say that she is doing this to simply provoke, in my view, is simplistic and defensive. To view this only as a provocative piece seems to ignore the multi-layered and complex nature of art.


In the next picture, entitled Bananarama (to left) we see Maple herself in a hijab ‘eating’ a banana. This is one we’ve featured on MMW before. Provocative? Indeed! Sexual? Definitely. Wrong? That’s up to the viewer. A woman in a hijab does have a sexuality. She can be a sexual being. As this is labeled a self-portrait by Maple, she very well could be trying to reconcile her own identity as a Muslim and as a sexual being. The fact that this is a self-portrait suggests this painting should be read as something personal to the artist as opposed to necessarily a comment on Muslim women in general.

Continuing with the hijab & sexuality theme, Maple includes in her self-portraits a painting, entitled Self Portrait with my Mother’s Headscarf and the breast of Kate Moss, of herself in her mother’s hijab with a breast exposed.

Throughout her work, Maple’s identity search, or perhaps a sort of crisis, emerges again and again in various forms along with her sexuality as a woman. In this picture (below right), entitled Blue, Badges, Burka, we see a woman in niqab who appears to have many identities and many allegiances, including to Britain. Perhaps we are seeing the complexity of a Muslim woman’s identity, especially one which is usually depicted as one-dimensional. Notice the magazine the woman holds with a seemingly nude woman on the cover. Again, a hint of her sexuality appears as a part of her identity as a Muslim woman.

In her Salat series of photographs, Maple poses at various stages of prayer, in some wearing masks, in some wearing hijab, in some wearing bunny ears with the hijab, and in some wearing no headcover. Could this be her way of questioning her own prayers, or those of others? Could this be her way of accepting diversity?

Maple’s work is vast and cannot be covered in detail in one post. However, what can be said about her work is that Maple appears to be trying to figure something out. Much of Sarah Maple’s work revolves around issues of identity – the individual identity of Sarah Maple and how she fits into her world. She’s trying to define her own identity through her work. She seems to be negotiating herself as a woman who is also a Muslim. She is trying to figure out what it means to be a sexual being and a Muslim. Although many other women may find themselves reflected in her work, the sense that I get from Maple’s work is that it is mainly about her. And to be honest if this is the way she chooses to do so, then so be it. After all, such negotiations are far from rare among Muslim women (among women in general). Maple just chooses to do hers publicly.

All paintings via Sarah Maple’s website.

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  • Sakina

    I really love her work, and I don’t really get why the pig painting is causing such controversy. I mean, I get why people would find it controversial or strange, but I don’t see it as anything to get worked up over. Then again, I was never raised in a culture where pigs are seen as dirty and something to avoid at all costs.

    What I like about Sarah Maple is that the messages behind her artwork is complex and important, yet it’s very easy to understand when you look at it.

  • laila

    I’m really surprized at the reactions of Maple’s work from some members that represent the Muslim community.

    But what do you gals and guys think of the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain demanding the removal of Maple’s painting?

  • Broken Mystic

    I don’t know how to feel about this one.

    I always feel hesitant to disagree with something like this because I’m worried that I will get stereotyped just because I am male, i.e. “oh he disagrees because he’s a man” (and in no way am I implying that you or anyone at MMW would think that about me).

    I really try to understand, and I acknowledge that there are a lot of things I need to learn about. The painting of the Muslim woman holding a pig doesn’t bother me so much, but I find the nude picture and the banana picture to be distasteful.

    I am in no way denying the artist’s talent or her right to express herself as an artist. Art is freedom to express the way you see the world, to present ideas, to provoke thoughts, to inspire, and so many other things. I am sure the artist and everyone else interpret the paintings in many different and unique ways.

    But since we’ve seen plenty of images in the media where women are swallowing bananas, licking lolly pops, or caressing chocolate bars, I am confident to say that most people aren’t thinking, “oh how nutritious!” Muslim or not, veil or no veil, it is easier to sexualize a woman than a man. As I studied how women are depicted in comic books, I noticed, as a man — and I shamelessly admit this for the purpose of research — sexual thoughts and feelings are aroused. It is human nature, especially when women are drawn in such poses and sexual positions. Heterosexual male readers get entertained by the male superheroes, the action, and they get to ogle at the sexy super-heroines and/or the supporting female characters. We all know what the banana, lolly pop, and chocolate bar images are suggesting.

    I acknowledge and understand that everyone has different thoughts, ideas, and interpretations on sexuality, so all I am saying is that these images don’t agree with my views on sexuality. I am sure there have been images of nuns doing this as well, and I recall a music video where a group of nuns throw off their clothes and dance with a man — that is serving and favoring male sexuality in my opinion.

    I hate to personalize things too, but I have seen non-Muslim men physically harass Muslim women — veiled and unveiled — far too many times. I have sat at tables where non-Muslim men fantasize about how “hot” it would be to sleep with a Muslim girl, especially a hijaab-wearing one. These kind of men look at hijaab-wearing Muslim women and only think about what is beneath the scarf. They flirt and ask stupid questions like “what would you do if I took off your scarf right now” while smiling and looking the girl up and down.

    For those kind of men to look at an image of a veiled Muslim woman swallowing a banana, I can only imagine how “hot” they think it would be in the same way it turns them on whenever they see a non-veiled woman do it. When I go into the dorms, apartments, or rooms of some male acquaintances, I notice the posters of “hot” Lesbian girls or women in suggestive poses. I know it would really tick me off if I saw this painting hanging in a guy’s bedroom.

    Again, I respect the artist’s vision and I am sure everyone has various interpretations and views on her paintings. Maybe I do not understand, and maybe you can help enlighten me on alternative perspectives.

    In any case, thanks for writing this, Sobia :)

  • laila

    I have experienced by wearing the hijab some Muslims want me to be first and foremost a walking billboard advertising their platform of Islam. As if I have no other identity, I’m simply a spoke-person, a walking religious symbol open to attack from anyone. When I didn’t wear a hijab whatever actions I took were based on me. It’s this pressure I constantly feel.

    Because Sarah Maple wears a hijab in this painting of herself, than her identity is no longer hers (some Muslims believe they have a right to her identity). It’s as if Maple’s has no right to an individual opinion or creative choice— she must first meet the approval of others.

  • abenyusuf

    Salam ,

    I wrote a poem in Spanish (now translated) inspired by the paintings. The tittle:

    Sarah Maple’s seditious dialectics

    An outline or a track she repeats
    Crisis of your hair in hijab
    precise costumary defeats
    for a century of rivalries
    between the petroleum of the eyes
    between the rose of your cynical kiss
    between the tickle of the power.

    I lose myself in a twisted row
    that takes until your lap
    in the ending of desire.

    Thank you to all the staff of Muslimah Media Watch,
    Ma’a assalâma.


    Sarah Maple is overrated. She’s such a Frida Kahlo wannabe and a rip off “artist.”

    Sorry, but I don’t see anything controversial about her artworks. I’ve seen more shocking stuff done by Muslim artists elsewhere.

  • Sobia

    @ UPG:

    Where else? Any women among them? Maybe we can cover their work.

  • SakuraPassion

    Great post! I like looking at art, too. Even though half the time I don’t understand it.

    I like Sarah’s use of color in her paintings she does really well with that. I don’t really see why her paintings would cause some controversy. And I’m looking at the painting Blue, Badges, Burka it does indicate this woman has many identities. But I kind of have this interpretation that when people see a Muslim woman in burka, they don’t know nor care about her identities.

  • Celeritas

    My thoughts on the pig painting:
    I wasn’t brought up Muslim but we were mostly vegetarian and I tended not to eat pork because I didn’t like it. My grandparents had three pigs as pets and they were absolutely lovely. We rode them, hugged them, rubbed them down and fed them.

    The Muslim view on pigs as animals that shouldn’t be eaten makes sense to me – they eat offal, they roll in mud, carry parasites, their meat goes off quickly and they are genetically very similar to humans so their illnesses can affect us. However they are also very intelligent and lovely animals, I really don’t see them as that different in deserving care as my cats. For this reason I am pleased to not eat them as they are often treated in very horrible ways as part of the food process. I regret that my obedience to halal meat consumption means I have to eat factory farmed chicken but I am pleased to be not eating pigs which are farmed in a similar way.

    The Prophet SAWS was always nice to animals and although there is no Hadith related to the welfare of pigs that I know of, I imagine that the kind treatment of the Prophet SAWS to dogs would equally apply to pigs as they are both source of najas and are unfit to eat.

    My interpretation of the painting is that she thinks it is unfair of humans to hate pigs, all creation of Allah swt is amazing and has a purpose. Just because we can’t eat pigs doesn’t mean we should hate them.

  • Krista

    I agree with Celeritas re: pig painting. I also wasn’t brought up Muslim, but have been vegetarian for a long time. So I didn’t have the same cultural/religious taboos around pigs, but also haven’t eaten pork in at least ten years. To be honest, I was surprised at how tame that painting is; when I read about the fuss around it, I expected some big grotesque-looking pig or something, not a cute little piglet. I think my impression of the meaning of the painting is similar to what Celeritas said, that essentially, we shouldn’t get so freaked out about pigs, and even that pigs are deserving of our mercy and care the way other animals are. And even if I am being overly generous to pigs here (I have to admit I’m not exactly an expert on the status of pigs within Islam), I think that the assertion that the painting was done for the sake of being provocative is a little far-fetched… if provocation was what she wanted, she could have easily done something way more dramatic than a sleeping piglet!

    I also found myself really intrigued by the Salah photo series. To me, it resonated with the nit-picky comments I’ve heard people say about the minute (and often contested) details of what you should be wearing to pray, how you should be praying, etc., while showing no concern for the actual quality or sincerity of the prayer. I got a big “leave me alone, I’m going to pray how I want to, and it’s none of your business” vibe from it, which I totally appreciated. While I don’t necessarily agree with all of her prayer-wardrobe choices (and this blog isn’t the place to discuss what is appropriate to wear while praying), I definitely related to a feeling of just wanting to focus on the prayer itself despite all the noise from various directions about whether you should be wearing your scarf a different way, should be wearing different clothes, etc.

    I’m curious, does anyone know if she still identifies as Muslim? Her bio states that she was “brought up as a Muslim,” but it’s ambiguous (maybe deliberately so?) as to whether she still identifies as such. Not that it necessarily matters, but I think I would understand the pieces differently if she doesn’t actually identify as Muslim anymore.

  • Fatemeh

    I agree; Maple’s Salat series is my favorite of her work, for the same reason that you mentioned.

    I agree that her work would have completely different meanings if she no longer identified as Muslim.

    Great post, Sobia. I like all the different theories you have about her work! :)

  • Kawthar

    I’m curious, does anyone know if she still identifies as Muslim?

    In her interview with Lipstick Tracez, she does state that she is a Muslim

    Muslim leaders frothing at the mouth and banging their fists over something insignificant…nothing new about that. The aversion to pigs can get rather nonsensical at times.

    Back in ye olde school days, a friend of mine showed me her Islamic school’s version of the three little pigs: not only were the images of the pigs blacked out, but the word itself too.

    Anyway, great piece, as always.

  • Sobia


    I got a good laugh over the Islamic version of 3 Little Pigs. How boring! I used to love that story as a child. I can’t imagine it being fun if the pigs were blocked out.

    It’s true. This aversion to anything pig is extreme. And it tells us a lot of the idea of blindly following without thinking. The logic behind not eating a pig makes sense, but not the logic behind not being around one. People just seem to stop thinking at some point it seems.

  • Krista

    Thanks Kawthar for the link to that article and religious clarification!

    Like Sobia, I was laughing at the story about the three little pigs. Seriously, why bother??? The story just doesn’t have the same value if it’s re-written as the “three little [...]”

    Thanks Sobia for writing this post, by the way – I hadn’t seen Sarah Maple’s art before, and I really liked your analysis of her work.

  • Sobia

    Thanks Krista. With art it’s so hard because there are multiple ways of reading/approaching/judging art that no one opinion is right or wrong.

  • M. Landers

    I somewhat agree with Celeritas as well, although if I were to project an intention on the artist herself I would be most likely to project the same as I had back in the day when I was still painting … namely just enjoying putting together culturally incongruous thing for undefined effect. A sort of a cultural surrealism (err, in a mostly superficial sense, not in a deeply Breton’s philosophy kind of way).

    But, personally, as a rural kind of girl, and a rural American kind of girl, and an animal-loving farm-family kind of girl … well, I take in the pig painting as just a blandly functional portrait. I don’t mean that Maple means it that way … just that it’s how it sits with me, in my world.

  • Mash

    I like her work. I like the fact that it is provocative, though i don’t think her work is nearly as controversial as some may think. It’s funny how just sticking a Hijab on a model can skewer the the perception to such a great deal.

    I’ll be going to check out her show on Monday.

  • Sobia


    Very cool. Let us know what you think :)

  • Mash

    will do Sobia

  • sd

    What’s the logic of blacking out an image of a pig? I don’t eat dogs, but that doesn’t mean I can’t look at one.

    Just goes to show the difference in some peoples minds between a cultural taboo and a religious one – deal with it by denying it exists.

    I like her work, although I’m not convinced it’s very high art.

  • Mash

    I like her work, although I’m not convinced it’s very high art.


  • marranci

    Who knows why, I am not surprised about these attacks.
    Yet I have to admit that Miss Maple’s works (in particular the photos, videos and paintings full of sexual innuendo of very little artistic values) are not what I would call art.
    I know that other critics of art have expressed some doubts about her production.
    Yet I wonder, indeed, how much the ‘muslim’ themes of her works may be a short-cut for an ‘easy’ success. But this is just my opinion which you can read below

    [This comment has been moderated to fit within moderation guidelines.]



  • B

    I don’t think the painting with the pig is offensive or provocative. I think if Sarah was trying to be provocative, she could have painted a picture of a lady in a hijab eating the pork!! Or something equally as obvious to provoke. Art is there to be interpreted and opinions are of the eye of the beholder so there will be lots of assumptions and thoughts about this painting. I just think that people who are making a fuss about this just need to understand that you can’t be narrow minded and make an opinion on art, just know that it can be interpreted in many different ways and to open their minds up to what that could be. I think Sarah voices some real interesting debates and thoughts on her paintings which aren’t necessarily right or wrong but i think thats what art is all about.

  • Aaminah Hernandez

    I happen to agree with UPG that much of this work is poor attempts to “do” Frida (the “Self Portrait” is a good example of this lousy attempt) . As a true Frida fan, I am not impressed. I also can’t honestly say that I think Sarah’s work is particularly artistic or of much quality.

    I personally find her “Salat” series rather pointless, but that’s just me. Maybe it was very cathartic for herself, and maybe it means something to others. I don’t understand why there would be much controversy around her holding a pig and absolutely think it’s ridiculous for anyone to demand it be removed from display. I thought it was sorta cute actually. The one with the banana is just tacky, and it’s so overt as to be silly. I’m all for addressing the fact that Muslimahs have sexuality too – I know I do! – but I guess I’d like to see us address it in a classier and more subtle way.

    I do, however, like “Blue, Badges, Burka”. I think it does showcase how we are navigating so many different identities, and how we are pullled in so many directions and demanded to take a stand on them. And yet the overarching black overgarment and veil remains the majority of what anyone sees, and they don’t dig any deeper than that. I also think it showcases how we are expected to have these multiple loyalties, but are in effect silenced from actually speaking out loud about them, relegating them to badges and buttons (bumper stickers, LOL) rather than being allowed to speak to the complexities of our feelings and opinions on issues of interest.

  • mash
  • thinkanew

    wow, great article, wonderful discussion, actually i did enjoy the discussion as much as i did the article.

    i love art and respect artists, and i believe art should be free, and when critiqued, one must focus on the art itself rather than the artist, yet i know for a fact that anything to do with “Muslim women” especially with hijab would bring about attention for reasons we all know of, about Sara i am not sure is it about art or attention, both ways i think she is entitled and has the right to express and we have the right to give an opinion.

    as for those who took it far too seriousely, i think it’s silly, sorry.

  • Biss

    Great interview. Here are two more inteviews with Sarah Maple if you want to check them out. They were conducted by Brian Sherwin who is the Senior Editor for the Myartspace Blog.

  • Aynur

    @ B “I don’t think the painting with the pig is offensive or provocative.”
    @ Aaminah “I don’t understand why there would be much controversy around her holding a pig ”

    While I totally agree with both of you, my husband on the other hand (who was born & raised in Turkey) would have a different opinion. He thinks pigs are dirty and we should not be touching them or have them in kids cartoons (think ‘Word World’) or in books. I’m not sure where that attitude comes from, I first saw it in a Muslim family’s behavior when they had a problem with pigs in one of their kids’ books.
    Any ideas why this is so? Maybe as a convert I have different opinions than someone who was raised in a Muslim country/family…

  • Emily

    I absolutely love her work. The point of conceptual art is to make you think and push the envelope. As a painter I look to work like this for inspiration. I love the idea of incorporating text and creating humor with the figure! More power to Maple!!!!