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Courtesy of Sarah Maple

Feminist artist Sarah Maple takes on American politics in her US debut show

As she exhibits her controversial works from across the past ten years, the artist speaks to Dazed about the importance of shocking people

Sarah Maple has a tendency to say what everyone else is thinking. Over the years, it’s a habit which has landed the 34-year-old British artist in hot water. She’s received death threats and had bricks thrown through gallery windows because of her contentious artworks. Coming from a mixed Islamic background, the experience of having a dual identity is central to much of her work. But it’s something that often hasn’t sat right with the Muslim community. Maple’s self-portraits depict the artist in a hijab, smoking a cigarette, suggestively eating a banana, and cradling a pig in another – an animal viewed as a symbol of disgust in Islam.

In 2016, Maple spoke to Dazed about taking on internet trolls, and the fine line between freedom of speech and outright abuse, saying, “I think in a way, that online abuse silences people.” A lot has happened politically since then, and, if anything, these issues have only grown. We have seen a series of deeply questionable people awarded positions of power, even when freedom of speech has been leveraged to expose flaws in their character. Brett Kavanaugh and Donald Trump’s accusations of sexual abuse and pussy grabbing, being the most obvious. With everything else that’s gone on, from Trump’s attempts to build a wall and Theresa May’s botched Brexit to the rise and plateau of #MeToo, it has been a tumultuous few years.

“I am interested in how a lack of action directly and/or indirectly inflicts suffering and potential violence on its citizens” – Sarah Maple 

The timing is therefore apt for the outspoken artist to make her US solo debut. Thoughts and Prayers, on show at The Untitled Space in Manhattan until February 9, is very much a response to the troubled times we find ourselves in. “I am interested in how a lack of action directly and/or indirectly inflicts suffering and potential violence on its citizens,” explains Maple. While the show takes a global view of injustice and inequality, the title is inspired by America’s gun debate and the government’s failure to address it. Maple adds, “The threat of terror is continually focused on and yet nothing is done about gun laws. When officials offer up ‘thoughts and prayers’, it appears hollow and insincere.”

Many of Maple’s older works are on display as well. Most notably her ”Menstruate with Pride” (2010) triptych, which shows Maple standing proudly in a white dress stained with blood, surrounded by horrified strangers. Maple tells me it is worth it to come and see this large painting alone because of the dramatic efforts she went through to carry it overseas. “I brought it on the plane in this ridiculous box that I made at home, and then I kept it in this sports equipment bag. I felt terrified. I felt like I’d packed my child off in the undercarriage. I was so nervous,” she recalls laughing.

These familiar works are exhibited alongside some new creations made especially for the show. Many of these pieces explore the parallels between the political climate in the US and the UK – looking at themes of fear, division, toxic masculinity, and xenophobia. In a series of collages she has juxtaposed vintage advertising imagery against cutting phrases, using them as a kind of subtitle. An image of a couple blocking their ears reads “The less I know the better.” In another the words “Human trapped in a woman’s body” are imprinted across a smiling woman’s face. “This is my penis” depicts a man’s crotch pasted over with the silhouette of a pink gun. Collage is fresh territory for Maple, and was introduced to her by friend and collaborator Janet Braun-Reinitz. The artist met the 80-year-old freedom rider on a residency in LA and the two have remained close ever since.

As the centrepiece of the exhibition, Maple has created a series of “Thoughts and Prayers” posters which she brought to a shooting range and “shot the hell out of it.” These posters, bullet holes and all, cover a wall of the exhibition and are accompanied by a video of Maple firing a gun at the range. It’s a risky offering, given the prevalence of mass shootings in the States in 2018 alone, but Maple is no stranger to controversy. In fact, it’s something she seeks out in her work, “but not just for the sake of it, not just to be shocking because that’s just annoying”, she says. “I think it’s something that's shocking, but it's got a really good meaning behind it,” she adds, pointing to Banksy as someone who shocks in the right way, praising his most recent headline-grabbing gesture which saw him shred his own artwork.

Another artist known for her shock factor, and one that Maple regularly references in her own work, is Sarah Lucas. Maple’s humorous use of cigarettes, the substitution of body parts for fruit, and a recreation of “Self-Portrait with Two Fried Eggs”, are all obvious nods to the YBA. Maple’s favourite part of the retrospective? A suit detailed with cocks. “I like how she uses British sense of humour and it's quite lad-y,” she reveals.

However, Maple says there are some pieces she’s made that she’s not comfortable showing. One of these pieces includes a video piece. “I had a show last year where I made this whole video piece and we just didn't show it in the end because we were worried about how people would react,” she says. The film was a collaboration with the comedian Jeremy Hardy and tells the story of a fictional PR company who are attempting to rebrand Islam but keep getting it wrong. Following the Manchester attack, they decided it wasn’t the right time. “Maybe in the future, I'll show it,” she explains.

Many of the works featured in Thoughts and Prayers date back ten years, and yet they feel more relevant than ever. I ask if she thinks art has the capacity to create change or to inspire action. “I think so... I hope so,” she says. “I suppose that's what I'm trying to do with my work. Especially with social media and stuff, now you can make an image that people will share and find interesting or inspiring. I'm just trying to put more positive images of women and girls out there.”

Thoughts and Prayers runs at The Untitled Space in Manhattan until February 3, 2019