The Iraqi painter Mohammed Sami is a “brilliant” new talent, as this exhibition at the Camden Art Centre shows, said Alastair Sooke in The Daily Telegraph. His path to success has not been an easy one. Born in Baghdad in 1984, he was an artistic child prodigy; his “incandescent talent” was not lost on the Ba’athist regime, which co-opted him into producing murals extolling Saddam Hussein.
In the “chaos” that followed the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Sami fled to Sweden, spending nine months in a refugee camp before eventually settling in London. He now channels his experiences through his “large, sad, haunting pictures” that evoke “nightmarish moments and sensations from his past”.
Frequently incorporating disturbing imagery – from portraits of Saddam to hellish evocations of war – his paintings are “uneasy, dreamlike” scenes, mostly unpeopled but for eerily lifelike shadows and photographs adorning the walls of empty rooms. Bringing together a selection of his recent work, this show demonstrates how thrillingly Sami is “reinvigorating the hoary genre of history painting”.
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Sami’s paintings draw on “snatches of memory, sensation and intuition”, said Hettie Judah in The i Paper. He records shafts of light slicing through rooms, the “scuffed texture of a wall”, “splaying electrical wires” or “shadows cast by empty clothes”, all to haunting effect. In The Praying Room, for instance, he gives us a drab little room, “lit by a strong, low light which drives dramatic shadows across the picture”, with a poster of a holy man on a wall almost enveloped by darkness.
The best painting here is One Thousand and One Nights, said Adrian Searle in The Guardian. It shows “a vast sky lit with incendiaries, tracers and distant blasts, the clouds illuminated and night turned to day”. The picture evokes the televised attacks during the “shock and awe” campaign over Baghdad in 2003; but you also, disconcertingly, get “lost among the calmness of the trees and their reflections in the river, the lovely sky with its high clouds and the descending lights”.
There are many visual puns and double takes in Sami’s work, said Laura Cumming in The Observer. What initially appears to be a “green meadow of flowers” could also be medals strung across a military tunic. A pile of shirts is entitled Study of Guts. Another canvas seems to show “a body bent double beneath a load”, but turns out to be the shadow cast by an empty pill packet “askew on a stone ledge”.
Perhaps most chilling of all is Meditation Room, a vision of a darkened room in which a “pencil of light steals across an abruptly rucked carpet”. Above it hangs a large photo of a military figure; though his head is blacked out, his “stance, bulk and uniform” leave us in no doubt that we are looking at Saddam. It is just one highlight of an astonishing show by an “outstanding painter”.
Camden Art Centre, London NW3 (020-7472 5500, camdenartcentre.org). Until 28 May
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