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Painting of blue sky with clouds and light from rockets
Painting of blue sky with clouds and light from rockets

Mesmerising and frightening … a detail of One Thousand and One Nights, 2022, by Mohammed Sami. Photograph: Courtesy of the artist, Modern Art, London and Luhring Augustine, New York

Camden Art Centre, London
Sami, a refugee from Iraq, learned his trade painting his country’s then leader. His disquieting works, full of tortured surfaces, feel like distillations of death and chaos

I thought I saw figures in black crossing the squares of the city and standing on its flat rooftops, the sort of figures painters casually sketch in to give a scene a sense of life and scale. But there was actually no one there, just black and white flecks floating down on the clusters of buildings under a dark sky. Ashfall, by Iraqi-born painter Mohammad Sami, is an unpeopled and silent aftermath.

Clogged, compressed, scraped down, sprayed, loosely brushed: the surfaces of Sami’s paintings have been through a lot. They evidence turmoil, however quiet the images they describe appear. This is deceptive. Sami’s paintings are filled with doubts and ambiguities. You can’t always be sure what you’re looking at and the paintings often say one thing, their titles another. A gilded, upholstered throne is called Electric Chair, and a huge painting of what appear to be piles of shirts (are they collars of military shirts?) is titled Study of Guts. In The Parliament Room, rows of unoccupied chairs recede into darkness. They look like headstones

Trained as a painter in Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad, Sami was set to work on murals and portraits of the leader, to be hung in offices, public buildings and homes. When you see his recent versions of these portraits, decorating Sami’s painted interiors, Saddam’s face is never clear. There’s the uniform, the bulging shirt, the military belt, sidearm and medals, but from whatever angle you look the face remains indistinct, a blob of shiny black receding in the murk. In one painting, all we see is a nail protruding from the wallpaper and a ghostly pale rectangle where a portrait once hung. And in the painting of a podium there’s nothing between the angled, swan-necked microphones, except a blob of something indistinct.

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