Twenty years ago, the U.S.-led coalition invaded Iraq and ousted Saddam Hussein. Almost twenty years earlier, the artist Mohammed Sami was born in Baghdad; by then, the Baathist regime had ruled the country for half a decade. By the time Sami applied for asylum in Sweden in 2007, he had lived in Saddam’s shadow all his life.
At Camden Art Centre in London, “the Butcher of Baghdad” returns to haunt Sami’s first major institutional exhibition. In the first gallery, Saddam’s portrait loomed over me in a painting within a painting. The bogeyman is partly hidden by shadow, high up on the blood-red wall of the interior, but there is no mistaking that khaki uniform and side holster.
Further into the exhibition, a six-metre-wide canvas of an absinthe green sky with flashes of light recalls the U.S. military’s “shock and awe” tactics during the 2003 invasion. Next to it, an equally monumental painting of a room with empty chairs. An image of Saddam’s purge policy? And in the corridor on the way out, a small painting of a wall covered in medallion-patterned wallpaper, its fading green colour echoing the khaki uniform. A nail suggests that a painting once hung on the wall, while the shadow it casts alludes to the time that passed since it was taken down.
What does it mean to live in the shadow of a dictator? In Sami’s case, the question takes on particular significance. As a young artist, he was recruited to paint Saddam’s portrait, which was to adorn every home in Iraq. No other subject is said to have been allowed. Does he still carry that image ban inside him? His show is full of scratched surfaces, lurking shadows, empty rooms, and clothes alluding to those who once wore them. A lament for the hundreds of thousands who disappeared? A repetition of the gesture of taking down Saddam’s portrait, only to realise the traces are still there?
In an interview with curator Sohrab Mohebi, director of Sculpture Center in New York, Sami says that the absence of human figures in his work is a way of paying attention to “the limitations in painting.” To paint, he claims, is an “act of respect and restraint.” It is not to depict what one has seen, but to pass through “nothingness” to approach what is necessary.
In Sami’s small painting Point 0 (2023), the viewer is pressed so close to an airplane window that the subject becomes almost unclear. In essence, the picture consists of a slanted oval surrounded by a few brushstrokes to suggest a space beyond the picture plane, nothing more. Yet, it perfectly captures the stillness of sitting on a plane which is about to take off: the low hum of the engine, the pressure in the ears, the uneasiness of departing.
Indeed, Sami’s exhibition could be read as a story beginning on that airplane. Through the window I saw the desert already fading from memory. The surrounding works seemed to emerge from oblivion as my mind began to wander. In the next gallery, a six metre-wide painting of a meticulously rendered stone wall which almost obscures some trees and a building at the top. The title suggests that it depicts a refugee centre, maybe the one in Sweden where Sami ended up fifteen or so years ago?
Sami’s paintings are full of such places and suggestions, but not very many stories. In the interview with Mohebi, he describes his work as “haunted” rather than traumatised. People long for images of trauma because they hope they will ease or end their pain, but Sami doesn’t seem to be looking for reconciliation. Rather, his paintings seem to be reaching for a place that could hold his experiences, insofar as they are inseparable from who he is.
I was reminded of how Francis Bacon is said to have invented a new space in painting at a time when others were preoccupied with the surfaces of abstraction. Sami’s equivalent to Bacon’s glass cage could be the shallow image depth, which squeezes the viewer into a narrow space between the surface of the canvas and the subject of the painting. To me, this captures the confinement and exposure haunting the era after the “War on Terror”.
Also, there is a photographic influence in the way Sami crops his subjects. Several of his paintings have a 1 to 1 scale, akin to trompe l’oeils. Like The Weeping Lines (2022), depicting clothes hung out to dry, casting shadows on the wall behind. An astonishing image of the past haunting the present. Perhaps we could say that in Iraq, Sami was not allowed to choose what to paint. In the West, on the contrary, he was encouraged to pursue his individuality. Thus, he began to seek out the what he couldn’t escape; his unfreedom. Amor fati, as Nietzsche put it. Love what you cannot control.