Gallery attacked over 'insulting' artworks

Arts Correspondent,Arifa Akbar
Thursday 30 October 2008 01:00
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A gallery showing inflammatory images of veiled Muslims, including a bare-breasted woman partially clad in a burqa, is under police surveillance after being attacked earlier this week.

Windows and doors at the SaLon Gallery in west London were smashed after a series of abusive, anonymous phone calls and angry protests about the images from Muslims. The gallery has complained to police.

The solo exhibition of paintings by Sarah Maple includes a veiled woman holding a pig, which is interpreted as a flagrant disregard of the Islamic ban on eating pork. The show – entitled "This Artist Blows" – also includes two self-portraits: one of Maple wearing a headscarf has an image of Kate Moss's naked breast attached to it; another shows Maple in a T-shirt bearing the slogan "I love jihad". In another, a veiled Muslim woman wears a badge that says "I love orgasms".

Last night, Maple, a 23-year-old of Kenyan and British parentage, defended her work, saying she had not meant to cause offence but to explore her Britishness and her Muslim faith. She voiced concern about her safety and said she hoped the exhibition of 39 pictures, which opened this month, would not be taken down before its official closing date of 23 November.

"I do think some people have just reacted to my work without thinking about the concepts behind it," she said. "I'm a practising Muslim and initially, when I started making the work, it was really personal, about my background with my father being British and my mother who is a Muslim and how I felt growing up. I was exploring the question of fusing those two together and whether it could be done."

Maple, from Sussex, has upset the Islamic world before. An exhibition by her earlier this year showed Muslim women in provocative poses, including one suggestively sucking on a banana. She won the Saatchi Prize last year for her self-portraits, some of which showed her in a headscarf smoking a cigarette. "People interpreted it as being related to sex, and that it was a post-sex light up," she said.

A spokeswoman for SaLon said the gallery in Bayswater, a part of London with a large Muslim population, was receiving about 12 abusive phone calls a day and emails condemning the show. Staff had to call police last week after an angry woman came in to complain. "She was in a full burqa and was irate and upset. Her behaviour was quite threatening," added the spokeswoman.

While some of Maple's paintings can be seen through the gallery's front window, the more controversial works are behind a curtain downstairs.

Mokhtar Badri, the vice-president of the Muslim Association of Britain, said that while he thought the exhibition provocative, he defended freedom of expression and condemned any violence inspired by the display. "I urged the gallery and the artist to respect the community in the area, but if Muslims see the work and dislike it, it is completely wrong to use any violent expression of that," he added.

Inayat Bunglawala, of the Muslim Council of Britain, agreed: "People may well have strong views on the use of Islamic imagery in Sarah Maple's exhibition. However, there can be no justification whatsoever for hooliganism of this sort or issuing threats."

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