Artist Sarah Maple calls out the art world

A painting of a woman looking over the shoulder of another woman with a canvas

The British member talks harnessing her frustration, disappointment in structural sexism and racism, and galvanising it into thought-provoking work

By Kate Bryan    Above artwork: 'Self Portait with Preceptor' by Sarah Maple    Monday 28 September, 2020   Short read 

It is a time for reckoning in the art world, where straight White men have dominated both the commercial and institutional aspects of it for centuries. Sarah Maple, born in Crawley in the UK in 1985, was compelled to address structural sexism and racism in her work even as an art student, where she noticed that female students were given less air time and respect. 

While still at college, she created the first of her self-portrait series, a triptych which borrows the ‘person holding sign with text’ motif of the great YBA era artist, Gillian Wearing. From left, we see Maple dressed in traditional Muslim attire, coyly smiling, with a sign saying ‘I wish I had a penis’. This is followed by Maple in only red lipstick, bra and knickers with a franker expression and a sign reading ‘Because then I’d f**k you”. Finally, we see her in a suit with a red tie, smugly smiling and a sign saying ‘Then steal your job’. The appalled and shocked response from her professor and some of her classmates was a catalyst for Maple to embrace provocation in her work and adopt an attitude that shone a light on the elephant in the room.
A stone with words carved into it
A woman sat on a stool holding up a piece of art

Sarah Maple self-portrait

A decade later and Maple has harnessed this frustration, dismay and disappointment in prevailing attitudes into mature and thought-provoking work. It questions ideas around identity, religion, race, the artworld, feminism, and freedom of expression. Often using herself as a conduit to challenge stereotypes and normative behaviour, Maple is adept at confronting complex issues that we are all thinking about with wit, irony, and a startling honesty. Her own mixed religious and cultural background informs much of her work and her latest exhibition, which I am honoured to curate, is a timely exploration into the systemic race, class and gender barriers in the art world.

Maple’s title, Nazi Sexy Shark Show, arbitrarily takes its name from words with the highest ‘click through’ appeal, and includes painting, text-based marble works, collage, photography and video. The focal point of the exhibition is a ground-breaking series of short films. Maple has essentially invented an ‘art-com’, fusing video art with sitcoms. Each film is a semi-autobiographical piece, a heightened reality that draws influence from Extras and Curb Your Enthusiasm, as well as seminal artists such as Cindy Sherman and Sarah Lucas. Often absurd, and always biting in its commentary, the films are championed by those that agreed to take part, sending themselves up as they did so. David Tennant, a real-life collector of Maple’s work, plays an egocentric and less than generous version of himself, which is filmed at ‘Crawley Soho House’ (in reality, the top floor of 76 Dean Street in London after Nick Jones couldn’t resist her idea). 
A woman with her arm around a man

Sarah Maple with Grayson Perry

A man with his arms around a woman

Sarah Maple with Damien Hirst

The piece also includes the seminal artist Sonia Boyce, much talked about for being the first Black woman artist to represent Britain at the next Venice Biennale. She also has a run-in with seasoned art critics Will Gompertz and Nikki Bedi. My cameo takes me to an uncomfortable place as I perform as a bad feminist version of myself, instructing Maple with sexist, racist and patronising advice, which is based on her own experiences.  

The art-com is a meta experience, blurring the line between fiction and reality. This is heightened by the fact that concurrent to being exhibited in a gallery, the piece will also be available to view in the UK on Sky Arts as short films – a channel that’s now free to view. By positioning her work in people’s homes in this way, Maple is able to break down elitism that pervades the art world, adapting the power of video art to include the accessibility of a sitcom.

Another work that bends reality is the photographic series, Portraits With Fans. We see Maple reluctantly posing grumpily for photographs with her adoring fans – some of the great male artists of our time: Damien Hirst; Jeff Koons; Grayson Perry; Antony Gormley; Anish Kapoor; the Chapman Brothers; Marc Quinn; Mat Collishaw; Martin Creed; Olafur Eliasson, Wolfgang Tillmans and Matthew Barney. All perfectly Photoshopped, Maple reverses the tables on these seasoned art world names, making them ridiculous in their fandom of a young, mixed-race female artist. 

In her Celebrities In Stone series, Maple plays with truth instead of fiction. The ingenious tablets present real-life tabloid headlines carved in marble, such as ‘Meghan Markle’s Avocado Snack Fuels Human Rights Abuses’ and ‘Kim Kardashian Goes Topless With A Parakeet’. Akin to ancient Roman artifacts, the new permanence of the medium highlights the facile and inane nature of ‘news’.
A topless woman with a clock over her face

'Clock No 6' by Sarah Maple

A stone slab with words carved into it

'Meghan Markle Avocado Snack' by Sarah Maple

Maple also presents joyful and exquisitely put-together work, such as the hand-cut collage series that celebrates the female form in a vortex of beautiful shapes and colour. A parallel series about women, Clocks employs digital collage to juxtapose a selection of The Sun newspaper’s topless Page 3 girls with their heads replaced by old-fashioned clocks. The combination of imagery is drawn from being a young woman coming of age in the UK in the 1990s, and the series highlights biological pressure on all women.  

The most personal work in the exhibition is a large painting, ‘Self Portrait With Preceptor’. Subtle but striking, it removes artifice and lays the artist’s soul bare. Maple sits in front of a blank canvas facing the viewer, making us either her accomplice or critic, with her mother lovingly standing beside her, waiting for the work to reveal itself. A meditation on the role of the artist and potential family issues surrounding making such personal artwork in her career, it is a quiet, reflective painting. 

In the Jealous gallery window, a neon asks ‘Why Art?’, almost rubbishing her whole endeavor. Maple is a provocateur, insisting we pay attention to the hypocrisies and dangerous elitism of the cultural establishment. But she also rejoices in the art world she despairs at; her power is to unpick the system with disarming satire and wit. It’s a timely show and we need artists like Maple to both ask and beautifully answer ‘Why Art?’ with exhibitions like this.

Sarah Maple’s Nazi Sexy Shark Show – 1 to 18 October at Jealous gallery, 53 Curtain Road, Shoreditch, London, EC2A 3PT

A members’ event will give a special preview of the exhibition before it opens, with a guided tour from the artist Sarah Maple and curator Kate Bryan, followed by a drinks reception at Shoreditch House Library on Wednesday 30 September
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