The silhouetted figure at in Mohammed Sami’s painting The Fountain I (2021) may be more familiar in toppled form. Here, the famous statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad’s Firdos Square stands tall, flanked by water jets from a nearby fountain that, painted red, resemble spurting blood. His likeness long since dismantled, Saddam, once Sami’s boss, still haunts the artist’s work.
Born in Baghdad in 1984, Sami was a teenager when he got a job painting propagandistic murals of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. After the United States–led invasion, Sami briefly worked for the Iraqi Ministry of Culture, helping recover looted artworks, before migrating to Sweden in 2007, and then to London, where he completed an MFA at Goldsmiths in 2018. Since showing at Luhring Augustine in New York and in the most recent Carnegie International, he has become known for his quietly haunting paintings. The small windows and skewed perspective of the domestic spaces in many of his works are a nod to his childhood interest in Islamic miniatures. Even in these intimate spaces, the presence of Saddam can be felt. In Infection II (2021), an image of Saddam hangs in a home. Once again, his face is cast in shadow; a spidery houseplant likewise imparts a creepy profile. It’s an unsettling image in which the prospect of violence seems to infiltrate the family home.
In Sami’s work, latent images tinted by time and trauma represent history. “The things I articulate in my artwork are memories hidden in the brain cells that are waiting for a trigger,” he told the Guardian this past March. Domestic scenes and roiling landscapes, which may nod subtly to war or sectarian strife, hover on the edge of abstraction. In A barricade against bombs … 23 Years of Night (2022), for instance, a crosshatching technique redolent of Jasper Johns materializes at a distance into two pieces of plywood protecting windows from a blast. Painted mostly on linen, these works often feel stained or rubbed raw.
The seamless transitions from abstraction to figuration in Sami’s paintings, along with various shifts in scale in their interiors, recall the unsettling and enduring imprints politics leave on everyday life. Over the painted plywood in 23 Years of Night, Sami rendered a gauzy curtain dotted with stars—the protected portal seen from inside. Bearing witness to totalitarianism and war, he seems to say, requires more than just courage. Trapped in darkness, he dreams of the sky.