“People have tried to kill me three times” says Mohammed Sami. Originally from Iraq but now living in Sweden the softly spoken painter has lived through some of the most difficult times in his countries history before leaving in 2007 to seek asylum in his new adopted homeland.
Sami, as he likes to be known, has just been announced as the winner of the Curious Duke Gallery’s Secret Art Prize and I have arranged to meet him in the gallery. He is working on a large piece which will eventually hang high on Whitecross Street during the popular Whitecross Street Party on 19th and 20th July, it was just one of the prizes on offer for the eventual winner.
His road to London has been a long one, his art reflects his experiences and his emotions which he presents in his own unique style. It’s hard not to stare deeply into a piece of Sami’s work, these are not images from which you are able to walk on by. His latest piece has, at its centre a black plastic garbage bag from which two horses legs are protruding. It is abstract and surreal but it’s meaning is deep “horses are a great symbol in the middle east” he tells me “they represent humanity and strength but in my paintings they are weak and dying”. The latest work is perhaps reflective of Sami’s deeper despair about what has been happening to his country in recent months. The horse has been thrown away, a great symbol left to decay in a garbage bag on the side of the road. You look at the work “and you just wonder why” says Sami “what happened, what a disaster this is”.
I have come to realise that as we speak, over a latte in a glass in the centre of Hipster London, that Sami is a man with a real passion for his country. Immensely proud of Iraq’s heritage and culture he plunges into deep despair as he verbalises what is happening over there even now “I am just in shock” he tells me when I ask about the current destruction of historic buildings and cultural artifacts by the terrorist group ISIS. “What can I say, nothing can get these buildings back, nothing can get the thousands of historical pieces back that have been sold or destroyed… it makes me feel like I just want to disappear.”
It’s clear to me now just how representative his art is of the tumultuous period that the middle east is currently going through and how culture in particular is being targeted. A lot of the pieces currently being lost or destroyed are themselves from the birthplace of civilisation. The first writing Sami tells me, was the Sumerians from the land which is now Iraq. “We should know that if we die others will come, if they bomb buildings they will be rebuilt again, but if they destroy the culture, the culture will never come back” he says.
Sami’s career as an artist working at the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad is what singled himself out as a targetfor extremists. Twice he has faced death at the front doors of his own workplace and once escaped by a whisker at the barrel of a gun at a fake police checkpoint only escaping as his captors realised he was Shia and not Sunni Muslim. That time he saw people who were not so lucky being executed at the side of the road, “I lost most of my friends this way” he tells me. Death purely on the basis of whether a person has the right name on their identification card.
The Ministry of Culture often found itself the victim of attacks from extremists and Sami, who as an artist was responsible for putting on exhibitions would have been well known. His work having being shown on television he became a symbol of the type of culture those who wanted to destroy it despised. The first time he was attacked he was walking out of the front doors with the minister himself when a car bomb exploded “70% of the bomb failed” he tells me, “we were lucky”. The scars of that attack remain with him to this day quite literally. Even now he carries fragments of shrapnel embedded in his body, constant reminders of darker days.
“While I was working at the Ministry of Culture” Sami told me, “I had received messages from people telling me that people wanted to kill me, but I didn’t believe them.” The third time he faced death was a more targeted assassination attempt. His would be assailant lying in wait for him ready to shoot as Sami left the office for the day. “I went out from the big door and they stood up in front of me with a gun but they were killed by American Soldiers who were watching them so before they managed to shoot me, they got shot in the head.” The Americans had been keeping watch on the men who had been acting suspiciously and as they realised their true intentions the Americans reacted and saved Sami’s life.
The attempts on Sami’s life show just how precarious it was during those post war years particularly between 2004 and 2007 when he left. “As a public in Iraq we live together we don’t have many differences” he tells me “but people come from outside Iraq and they don’t want for Iraq to get better, they don’t want the Iraq culture, the civilization. I was a victim of that because I tried to challenge them, I tried to challenge as much as I could but I failed because there were more than me and I can’t stand in front of the power of the gun.
His chance to leave came when he was invited to France for an exhibition. Travelling then to Sweden he sought asylum as a refugee there and the Swedes took him in with open arms. “I feel so honored that I am a swedish citizen right now” he tells me saying that it’s important that to him his work enhances the name of his adopted country as well as his birth one. “It’s like I had a mother in Iraq and now I have a wife in Sweden, they are both important to me.”
Now, visiting London as the winner of the Curious Duke Gallery’s Secret Art Prize we change the tone of the interview when we talk about the city. “I’ll let you into a secret” he tells me “I’ve not told anyone this but the first exhibition I put on in Iraq when I was 10 was about London”. His uncle, a professor at Oxford University had given him a book and in it, the images caught the young Sami’s imagination. “I admired the night of London and the fog of London so I painted many pieces as a child and exhibited them in the University of Baghdad and now for the first time in my life I am here. I think this is unbelievable I just went to the places I painted as a child, it is like a dream.”
So onto the art, Sami is here to paint after all. His work ‘The Immigrant’ won the art prize. That piece he tells me not only represents people of Iraq but also the people of syria and the people of palestine. “Now the Syrians have almost the same or worse situation as people from Iraq” he tells me. “I have friends there and I can feel what I see on TV. I feel how they want to get out, how they want to travel, how they just want to leave.” It is the luggage of these peoples that he has depicted in his prize winning entry, “they carry their luggage with them everywhere”. This is the luggage of their background, the war, what happened to their families, the horror of now and the memories of good times past and this is what the immigrant carries with them.
It is a worthy winner and the beginning of a different kind of journey for the refugee who has come so far and who is finally living the dream that a 10 year old boy first had lying in Iraq and dreaming about the fog of old London Town.
Mohammed Sami was interviewed on Whitecross Street as he completed a four day residence at the Curious Duke Gallery. He is the winner of the Secret Art Prize and his work will be able to be seen during the Whitecross Street Party on Saturday 19 July 2014 and Sunday 20 July 2014.