Your art is often tongue-in-cheek, bringing humour into politics (such as ‘Blues, Badges, Burka’ or ‘Banarama’). What is the place of art and comedy in politics?
For me it’s extremely important, satire allows us to say the unsayable. And it’s also a great way of getting a message across; it’s one of the most effective ways of communication I think. The right balance can be genius. When I was growing up I always loved the British Satirical comedies, it’s all I watched. I think that has definitely influenced my practice in a big way.
Feminism is also an important theme in your works, with paintings such as ‘God is a Feminist’. What was the inspiration behind this piece?
I think the idea of ‘God’ would be something that believes in equality for all people. And I think feminism is about equality! I think the statement works with the powerful stance of the woman. I also wanted to make a statement about the perception of the ‘Victimised’ Muslim woman.
Satire allows us to say the unsayable. And it’s also a great way of getting a message across.
You recently exhibited your work with ‘Herselves’, looking at how the female figure is represented in contemporary society. In the past, you also protested Page 3 of The Sun by slipping your own version into stacks of newspapers. What was the process like for these works? What role does art play in protest?
I really love protest art and my next body of work is focusing on this. I like playing on the idea of protest and doing ‘actions’ like the Page Three work. I love how you can get people involved and everyone is working together to make something happen. It’s so much fun. A lot of my work in general could be seen as a protest. For me art is all about activism!
You create art in many forms, using photography, video – even marble. In what way does using yourself as a subject in a photograph differ from using yourself as a subject in a painting?
I choose the media for what best suits the concept; it’s all about getting the idea across. Previously, I would have said it’s more personal to have a photograph, but paintings for me are incredibly personal too…but then there is the mask of the paint to hide behind. There are probably certain things I would paint but then never photograph!
In the past, you’ve created many self-portraits. Is there anything you’ve noticed about yourself, through these pieces, that you hadn’t noticed before?
One thing I have noticed is how important the look in the eye is to me. There’s that special glint in the eye that really makes the picture, I can’t put my finger on what it is. When I was in Amsterdam and we were doing the daily protest photographs they called it ‘Maple Face’ haha! We were seriously looking through the photos in the editing process going ‘Hmm that one is good but that’s not a Maple face’.
We need controversial art to shake things up, to say something people won’t say in everyday life.
Your painting, ‘Haram’ – a portrait of yourself in a hijab, holding a piglet – caused some controversy. What is the role of controversial art in society? What was the purpose of ‘Haram’?
I think we still need controversial art to shake things up, not just for the sake of it but to say something people won’t say in everyday life. In this work I was questioning certain cultural traditions or looking at hypocrisy I was witnessing. Even challenging what many Muslims believe Islam to be about. Most Muslim people in the UK have not even read the Qu’ran in English.
In the past, you’ve spoken about how the internet allows for anonymous hate speech. Your recent exhibit, ‘Power to the People?’, looked at censorship and the freedom of expression (such as with your piece, ‘Read My Lips’ or ‘Your Opinion is Wrong’). What is your take on the internet and freedom of expression? In what way do you think the world of art is changing due to the internet?
It’s interesting because you’re exposed to all these individual view points that artists would have been shielded from before. I wonder how that affects artists work. I wonder if that makes it better or worse. Maybe it’s just a part of life now, social media is still relatively new thing really. I don’t believe in censorship and I think freedom of speech is extremely important, but there’s a difference between sharing an opinion and saying you disagree, to threatening to rape someone on Twitter. That’s not freedom of speech, that’s just being an arsehole.
Your painting, ‘If I Loved You, It Was Because of Your Hair. Now You No Longer Have Your Hair, I Don’t Love You Anymore’, shows Britney Spears sitting on a chair, cutting off her hair. It was inspired by Kahlo’s 1940 painting, ‘Self Portrait With Cropped Hair’. What was the inspiration behind your piece?
I was interested how when both these women went through a mental breakdown, they both choose to get rid of their hair, a very bold gesture for a woman. As if by doing this, they were taking charge, feeling powerful….by renouncing their sexuality in some sort of way, this gave a feeling of freedom or empowerment. The title is taken from the text on Kahlo’s painting.
On the note of pop culture, your collection, ‘Celebrities in Stone’, shows headstone-like squares of marble with humorous lines etched in, all about different celebrities (for example, ‘Chris Hemsworth’s Wife Has Slight Wardrobe Malfunction’, or ‘Selena Gomez Shares Inspiring Instagram Message’.) What was the concept behind this exhibit?
I am interested in how people think celebrity culture doesn’t affect them. Even if you don’t want it to, it seeps into our subconscious. Somehow these celebrities end up becoming part of our lives and influence our fashion and life style choices. Celebrities are addictive and I have absolutely no idea why. The statements on the marble are actual headlines taken from the Daily mail, MSN news etc which I collected over a year or so. I carved them into marble because I wanted to show the permanence or the affect pop culture has on us.
Your work has incredibly personal elements to it, but you’ve described yourself as a private person in real life. What inspires you to be personal in your work? Is it possible to create non-personal art?
I am definitely a private person so it is hard to talk about my work because it does come from a personal place and in a way you cannot separate my background from the work and it’s important to know my upbringing to understand the work. However I want to keep that distance and have the personal and art separate but I don’t think it’s possible! I would be a terrible reality star! I digest all my thoughts and all the information I have, then put it across in a way that I hope is accessible to people and not too much about me.
Interview by Nickie Shobeiry