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.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!