In an attempt to delve into the private universe of artists and art collectors, Selections is exploring the sanctuaries of various men and women, some living and others who have passed away, and shedding light on places that remain out of bounds for the majority of people. We examine how these artists and art collectors live, what surrounds them and how they go about thinking, dreaming and creating. In order to get as personal as possible, we came up with customised questions that we then presented to each of these men and women (and in the case of those who passed away to their children), tailoring our queries to the way each of them lives and goes about creating his or her work. In parallel, we shot a short film, which you can view on our website, that navigates each artist and art collector’s sanctuary. The film allows viewers to get up close and personal with artists and art collectors who seldom open their personal space up to the world. A fascinating artistic journey into the hearts and minds of some of the region’s most intriguing people.
Sami Mohammad is one of the Arab World’s most respected artists. Best-known for his magnificent bronze sculptures, including “Hunger” and “Mother,” the Kuwaiti artist earned a government scholarship in 1966 to study at the Institute of Fine Arts in Cairo and later attended the Johnson Atelier Technical Institute of Sculpture in Princeton, New Jersey, where he first started working with bronze casting. Mohammad’s work was part of the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, the first time Kuwait ever participated in the prestigious art event. For the main part, Mohammad’s pieces have focused on human beings and Arab revolutions.
When did it suddenly click that you have artistic inclinations?
It happened when I was around seven years old. At that time clay was used to build houses in Kuwait. I took some clay off the wall and started playing with the material without really knowing what I was doing. I eventually started creating forms, birds and animals.
What is the place that has influenced you the most?
Kuwait, being my home country and the place I’ve spent the most time in, has been the longest lasting influence. I also remember my first trip outside of Kuwait. I went to Egypt to further my artistic studies. There I visited museums for the first time and was amazed with all the sculptures I saw.
What is your working routine?
In the morning I have a coffee and look at the work I did the day before. I analyse the piece and think about if it needs any improvement or modification. I make changes if I see it necessary or destroy the piece completely and start again. When I start a new piece, I make sketches of the idea I have in mind, and once I have it I begin working. I have several ongoing works in my studio. Sometimes when I get stuck with a piece I move onto another, I don’t like wasting time.
At a time sculpture was a new and provocative art form in conservative Kuwaiti society. Talking of art as provocation, do you think that provocation is an important aspect of the contemporary scene?
There are two kinds of provocations, one that is beneficial to art and one that obstructs it. The first surprises, delights and involves the audience rather than the provocation that moves people away in disgust or shock. I think it’s important to surprise and provoke people in a way that makes them ask questions and deepens their understanding.
Your sculptures envelop the viewer with multiple perspectives. Are you mirroring some reflection of yourself or ruminations on things outside of yourself?
Both. I have a sculpture called “Sabra and Shateela.” This was made in response to a tragic event that happened in Lebanon in 1982. I wasn’t there, but I can feel things happening around me, and through my work I try to turn it into something good.
Which do you prefer Utopia or Dystopia?
I prefer Utopia of course.
Do you think making artworks centralized around pain one of the best cathartic mechanisms to cope with it? Do you think others observing it feel the same way? Do you intend to make your audience feel something specific?
The pain is not in me, but I feel the pain of others. I try to replicate and show this so that we can learn not to do it again. And I hope that’s what the audience takes away from my work.
Let’s talk about intellectual property. Where exactly do you draw the line, meaning where and how is the line crossed?
All my sculptures have ideas. Any person stealing this idea is infringing on my rights and intellectual property.
What differentiates what you are doing from what a good politician is doing, for instance, for the sake of humanity’s greater good?
The difference is that I give a tangible message that every person can feel. The artist can transmit their message faster than a politician. When you first see a sculpture, you can feel something within seconds. Artists are closer to people and humanity than politicians.
What is the philosophical dilemma that has most been a matter of questioning you so far in your life? Have you come to a synthesis, a resolution about it?
My philosophy towards my artistic work is to say that people were created by God and God granted us with privileges, more than any other creature. We need to respect this and work towards bettering humanity and its suffering.
Do you think that art is some sort of visual philosophy? Explain.
First and foremost it’s a message, and secondly it’s a visual philosophy; of colour, line, space, etc.
How important is the commercial aspect of art to you?
It’s not an important aspect for me, my main drive is not to sell. The most important concern for me is to send a message.
What would the mature Sami Mohammad say to the young Sami Mohammad?
I wish I understood what I understand now about people, humanity and the depth of feelings. I would tell him to think deeply about people and humanity.
How would you like to be remembered?
I would like people to remember me by my actions, and the things I’ve done towards the advancement of people and humanity.
What would you as an artist like to do to change the face of the Arab World?
I’d like for us to move away from hate and change the thoughts that lead to it, for people to understand my message like I intend it and move towards peace. I wish more artists would follow my example in spirit and principle.
A version of this article appeared in print in Selections, Sanctuaries #47, pages 120-125.
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