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Review: Mohammed Sami’s Phenomenal Paintings Illuminate Churchill’s Home

Review: Mohammed Sami’s Phenomenal Paintings Illuminate Churchill’s Home
Disrupting Blenheim’s grand isolation with scorched surfaces, mud and chipboard … Chandelier, in After the Storm: Mohammed Sami at Blenheim Palace. Photograph: Tom Lindboe/Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.

The carpet radiates a grim color, resembling sweaty mince with pasty, anaemic hues flecked with grey and brown. At its center, four heavily gilded chairs circle a plywood table. Emblazoned with baroque emblems, these seats cater to those seeking to feel important. The contrast of the electric blue damask upholstery against the mundane plywood reveals the grandeur as mere theatrical pomp. Viewed from above, four blades cast a broad shadow—those of a ceiling fan. In Mohammed Sami’s world of unsettling symbolism, these blades could just as well belong to a helicopter or a kitchen blender. Under their shadow, the carpet turns the dark red of dried blood.

This 2023 painting, titled “The Grinder,” serves as a grim starting point for an exhibition that challenges the splendor of Blenheim Palace. The grandeur and ostentatious surroundings can often overwhelm contemporary art, but Sami’s works pierce through the layers of pomp. The palace, known for its martial dukes and icy duchesses inked in silk-hung rooms, plays host to art that challenges this very opulence. Past exhibitors have been global superstars like Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer, and Maurizio Cattelan, whose gold toilet was notoriously stolen. In contrast, Sami, born in Baghdad, had a standout institutional debut at Camden Art Centre, but he isn’t a household name. This apparent gamble on an artist of his caliber shows to be an inspired choice.

Sami has undertaken a phenomenal task of creating a new series of paintings tailored to the visual grandeur of the palace. His works narrate a counter-narrative to the victorious battles depicted by Blenheim’s interiors. Sami’s canvases speak of mess, trauma, and the absence of bodies rather than glorious triumphs. While the palace’s state rooms feature tapestries of noble commanders surveying battlefields, Sami provides a ground-level view, capturing the inescapable chaos of conflict.

“Wiped Off” is strategically placed at the end of a corridor adorned with floral dining service displays. From afar, it appears like a rifle leaning against a wall, but up close, it reveals itself as a mop leaning against rich damask wallpaper near a red pool—possibly blood—surrounded by shattered crockery. The red hues of blood and wallpaper mirror the utilitarian carpet, blending the painting seamlessly into the room. This artwork encapsulates the view of those working behind the scenes, restoring the illusion of order after turmoil.

Sami’s “After the Storm” takes inspiration from the Green Drawing Room’s decor, crafting a visual drama. Though harmonizing with the room’s tone rather than opting for photorealism, it features the ghostly outline of a missing painting and black holes akin to bullet marks. This piece hints at violent chaos infiltrating the palace’s tranquil facade. Another powerful work, “Immortality,” inserts Winston Churchill’s shadow into a line of family portraits. Based on Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 photograph, the silhouette stands as a clotted black mass with cracks and corrosion. Where Churchill’s collar and handkerchief should be, splintered paint reveals white patches, symbolizing the transience of fame and geopolitical volatility.

Throughout the exhibition, Sami plays with Blenheim’s palette and scale, offering unsettling subversions of formal portraits, heavy gilt furniture, baroque chandeliers, and military paraphernalia. The exhibition’s centerpiece, “The Eastern Gate,” is a vast, turbulent canvas that commands the grandest reception room. A tangerine sky, thick with cinders or sand, looms over an emerald ground scarred by tank tracks. Coronas of acidic light illuminate a mosque and minaret, visible between jumbled trees, capturing a vision of Baghdad’s chaotic essence, stubbornly intruding into the delicate ambience of Blenheim.

By integrating elements such as scorched surfaces and mud into Blenheim’s isolated grandeur, Sami’s works go beyond speculative fiction. They plunge into the visceral sense memories of conflict, bringing the war home in an unsettling but profound manner.

• Mohammed Sami: After the Storm is at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, until 6 October

Source: The Guardian, Mohammed Sami Artist, Blenheim Art Foundation