An intriguingly titled exhibition, Sultans Are No Sultans, inaugurated the Nour Festival of Arts. Although it is the first solo show in London by Tunisian artist Mourad Salem, his work has been exhibited in Paris, Dublin, the Netherlands and Strasbourg.
Now celebrating its four year anniversary, the Nour Festival presents examples of contemporary Middle Eastern and North African arts and culture. Nour translates as ‘light’ in many countries of the region, and its annual program of illuminating visual art, music, performance, film, literature as well as lectures, has become a significant stimulus to the capital’s ever growing interaction between East and West. It is not all serious either. People participate in cookery classes, a souk and a tour bus, as well as poetry and cutting-edge political forums.
The title of Salem’s show Sultans Are No Sultans is clearly thought provoking. Why are they not sultans? Salem tells The Majalla: “Life is not what it seems to be. Don’t trust all that you see today in the images of civilizations past.” His constant theme is about how power is used or misused by Arab and Western leaders alike. He contends that it is vital to understand that the reality of power is not always accurately reflected by attractive representations in art. “There is a double language,” he says.
Eight of Salem’s recent explorations into the nature of power featuring imaginary, fantasy Arab leaders or Sultans of the past are hung in the highly appropriate Leighton House, decorated in Arab and Ottoman style by Lord Leighton more than a century ago. Salem suggests that many of these men in power abused that power, sometimes using religion as a tool of tyranny. “Don’t forget, Tony Blair claimed that God himself told him to invade Iraq!” he exclaims. The inference is that not much has changed—does he believe that the leaders of today are still ignoring the needs of their people, and not facing up to modern requirements? Salem responds: “I don’t. My work is in the realm of symbolic history.” However, he adds: “Power is a difficult exercise and mistakes are easily made.”
Pressing him as to whether he felt that none of the Arab leaders of the past, or indeed present, were or are any good he replies “Of course not. Some, such as Suleiman the Magnificent, were great leaders.” Indeed he appears to empathize with some of the people in his paintings, like the melancholy Sultan on a Sofa. Salem’s view is that some leaders represent the golden age of Islamic civilization; others do not.
Apart from one painting titled Don’t trust Sweet Leila, the rest of Salem’s portraits are of men. When asked why no women were depicted, even from behind the throne, his response is intriguing: “Historically, around the world, power has usually been in the hands of males, but wait! You’ll see a lot more women in my next series. Western women want to be the ‘head’ of the social body. But Arab women want to be the ‘neck’ that moves the head! Isn’t that more interesting?”
Out of eight paintings, three of them are faceless—all features are blanked-out. Are these intended as mirror images? Could we all be despots? Salem says: “Partly, yes, and also because at the end of the day, power is faceless wherever you are, since it reigns over people without distinction. Today the world is becoming more and more anonymous. This is thanks to the new technology of communication. People think that communication is becoming more personal due to Twitter and Facebook, but what is posted there can be fake—a fake account, a fake person, and a fake identity. So everything is mixed up, the last and the worst in a huge, anonymous, faceless melting-pot.”
Mourad Salem was born in Tunis, but moved far and wide for his education. In France he studied biology, then moved to Strasbourg to study pharmacy. But then he decided to become an artist, a self-taught one, shifting to New York and Dublin to develop his art practice. Now he lives in Paris. But why not Tunisia? “Paris is only a stop on my itinerary,” he says. “Where next? I don’t know. I am a citizen of the world.” But he adds: “Tunisia is my country, I grew up there, all my roots are there.”
However, he has a deep attachment to Turkey, and the Ottoman references in his painting are clearly evident, “and,” he adds: “many notorious sultans were also named Mourad!” The opulence of the Ottoman court, its sumptuous garments, its massive cockaded and bejewelled turbans are all vibrate in Salem’s work. “My paternal grandmother’s family was originally Turkish and she had a great influence on my vision of life. She passed on to me many things from the Turkish and Ottoman way of life. Her attitude to the world and her way of dress were Ottoman, not Tunisian. Her habits were from Istanbul, as well as her food, her coffee, her jewellery.”
He continues: “Tunisia has had many links with the Ottoman Empire. There used to be Tunisian Beys, who were elected by Ottoman officials. We all have two motherlands, our real one and our spiritual one. The Ottoman Empire may well be my spiritual one, in that I like the culture of the time, but not necessarily its leaders!”
Salem’s art is not all about earnest analysis of power and of despotic leaders; it is also fun and kitsch. Many of his canvases have gloriously ‘bling’ painted frames festooned with swags of fruit and flowers; the sultans are literally embellished with fake fur, paste jewellery and ostrich feathers stuck on. When asked about this kitsch collage, archetypal ‘bling,’ which adds such an amusing and enjoyable element to his art, Salem says: “Kitsch is an essential part of my personal painting style. It has a meaning—every tyranny is tacky. Every tyrant’s style is tacky—the crocodile shoes, the terrible gaudy furniture—it’s ‘dictator chic.’” One recalls the outrageously expensive clothes, jewelery and gold taps of leaders both in the immediate past and present, who splurge while their people suffer.
Another element of Salem’s art that brings it bang up to date is his inclusion of Disney characters. Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse pop up outside the ornate, old-fashioned frames of his portraits. “Firstly, they are an element of derision and satire,” Salem explains. “I also want to show that the Arab world is permanently watched by the US.”
Salem combines different components very provocatively, such as the Disney references and tools of modern destruction like missiles and bombs with historic sultans; his funky collages and unexpected additions such as an angel peeping over the frame of Beware of the Orchids’ Attack contrast with grim-faced leaders. When asked whether his work is a new and different take on Surrealism, he replies that the art movement has had an important influence on him. “The disparity between reality and the image is one of the roots of my paintings. Like the Surrealists, I believe in different levels of reading of a painting. Take Mozart’s music—it may be ‘easy on the ear,’ but the structure is so complex. It’s the same with visual imagery: the easier it seems, the more elaborate it is.”
Salem has also said that one of the painters who’s work he appreciates is—surprisingly—British artist Francis Bacon. “I admire Bacon, of course, but he has not influenced my style. Bacon transforms reality by distorting shapes in order to stress upon the viewer the tragedy of mankind. I choose to “embellish” reality for the same purpose.”
Lastly, when asked whether the events in the Middle East over the past few years have affected him as an artist, Salem responds: “As an Arab, I feel concerned about what happens in the Arab world. But I also belong to the global world and I feel concerned about everything that happens in the world.”
Sultans Are No Sultans is presented by Rose Issa Projects at Leighton House Museum, London, until October 30, 2013.