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Sarah Maple
"The Opposite To A Feminist"Sarah Maple

The artist turning internet trolling into art

Sarah Maple has never shied away from the controversy that comes as a result of her boundary pushing artwork – here she talks about how that backlash fuels new projects

Social media abuse and online trolling is as an inevitable by-product of creative expression today, but that doesn’t mean it hurts any less. Where there used to be a separation between artists and their critics, platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram have helped bridge this gap, resulting in a wave of social commentators hiding behind their screens. While many assume it’s easy to brush off and hold your head up high, the damaging effects of cyber harassment are often felt long after switching off.

Enter Sarah Maple, the artist taking on the trolls. Maple has made a name for herself over the years for pushing the boundaries of femininity, and for publicly discussing the convergence of her dual-Muslim heritage with feminism. She has never shied away from controversy, but in the process has been the subject of much online backlash (Maple’s International Women’s Day piece,  “Opposite to a Feminist is an Arsehole” post causing a particular stir). As a reaction to comments she received in a Guardian article, the artist is now using the negativity made about her work as inspiration for a new exhibition entitled Comment is Free.

Rather than crumble, Maple has an impressive resolve in the face of cyber adversity: she tries to laugh instead of cry. However, she will now invite audiences at The Other Art Fair to experience the same kind of public humiliation she has by making them wear a sandwich board written on with derogatory comments. As an interactive art piece, Maple hopes to examine where freedom of speech ends and abuse begins. Ahead of the show’s opening this Thursday 7 April, we caught up with her to chat about Comment is Free and how treatment by online users has spurred creativity and opened up a dialogue about post-internet expression.

Tell me about your inspiration for Comment is Free – what is the relationship between you, the press and social media, and your work?

Sarah Maple: When the Guardian piece came out, it was a great opportunity for me to get my work out, talk about my new project and I was really happy about that. But at the same time, I was dreading it, I just knew the comments were going to be bad. In the past I have embraced negative comments and just had a bit of a laugh with it. But this time, it seemed more intense because of the sheer number of them.

At the time, I couldn’t decide whether it was a good or bad thing to read them. I didn’t want it to affect my work or influence my negativity and knock my confidence, but at the same time, I thought I may find some inspiration or comedy from them. I started reading and I was astonished really. It’s almost like a new form of public humiliation. I just really didn’t want my friends and family to read all that.

“I believe there is still a special hatred saved for simply being a woman!” – Sarah Maple

Cyber trolling is very widespread today. How do you react to online abuse?

Sarah Maple: I think in a way that online abuse silences people. It’s like there're two sides, it’s great to express yourself but then you open yourself up to abuse. It also means you have to hear people’s often horrible opinions on all sorts of things. I know many people who have stopped using social media because of it. I know people will say they shouldn’t take it seriously or they shouldn’t let it get to them but everyone is only human and has a limit! It’s hard not to take it personally.

I try and engage people and explain what I am trying to say in my work. Half the people will be respectful and half won’t. There’s only so much you can do! Some people just want to be arseholes and there’s nothing you can say to turn that round. I shared my “Opposite to a Feminist is an Arsehole” (artwork) on International Women’s Day and all hell broke loose (laughs). It was funny really because everyone ended up fighting amongst each other so I left them to it!

Does taking ‘ownership’ of the comments on your work make you feel more in control?

Sarah Maple: It does make me feel more in control definitely. It’s also very cathartic. In terms of making work, it also helps me solidify my own ideas or methods of working – in a way it fires me up. If there is constructive criticism, I do take that on board. It’s also important to listen to the positives too, you could have 100 amazing comments and one terrible one, and you will always focus on that one.

Are you rejecting abuse, or do you think it encourages creativity and action?

Sarah Maple: I am interested in how it impacts on the person at the other end and how this especially impacts on artists and creativity. I find it so interesting. For the first time ever, you can say anything you want to anyone, no matter how hateful it is. And because this is still so new, no one really knows what to do about it. This is where the whole ‘freedom of speech’ debate comes up because everyone says they believe in that but then we have people sending rape threats to feminists.

Why did you choose to use an interactive piece? What is the role of the audience?

Sarah Maple: In this performance I will have a booth of my work at The Other Art Fair. People will be able to comment on the work, I will then pick a comment at random and wear it on a sandwich board. I will be doing this throughout the fair and picking a new comment every day. This work is all about the audience because we are all now part of this world where we are encouraged to share and comment on everything.

Wearing a sandwich board with comments on it is a bit like a public humiliation, they actually use this as a form of punishment in the States, where people stand outside a shop they’ve robbed for example with a board saying ‘I’ve stolen from this shop’ or something. It’s highlighting that feeling.

You often discuss and challenge what it means to be a woman and a Muslim in your work. Will Comment is Free include such issues?

Sarah Maple: It depends on if the comments left relate to this fact, however, the first comment I will be using to start things off is my favourite one from years ago that said, ‘She is only successful for being attractive and Muslim’, which I thought was really funny.

I have often talked about the backlash I have received for making work about my dual heritage and being raised as Muslim. However, as far as feminism has come in the past few years, I believe there is still a special hatred saved for simply being a woman!

Has the convergence of feminism with your Islamic upbringing caused controversy for you?

Sarah Maple: I have had a lot of backlash in the past when I showed my paintings – death threats and a brick through the gallery window and stuff. So it was difficult. But there is so much positivity too, lots of Muslim feminists contacting me and being supportive. Things are even harder now but you have to keep going. This is why I want to make a whole body of work about freedom of speech and this is what Comment Is Free is touching on.

Comment is Free will take place at London’s The Other Art Fair from Thursday 7 April – Sunday 10 April 2016. For more information, click here