The Execution Room, painted by Mohammed Sami, is one of the most impressively ugly artworks I’ve seen in a while. It’s currently on show at Modern Art, along with a collection of other new, thematically-linked work from this Iraq-born, Sweden-based artist.
It shows a dining table and chair set in a style that might kindly be termed “dictator chic”. I suspect, but can’t confirm by googling, that it was a room in Saddam Hussein’s palace, captured by allied forces during the disastrous war of 2003. The chintzy chair-backs, shiny table-top and plush patterned carpet are bathed in yellow electric light (the chandelier peeking from the top like the light bulb in Picasso’s Guernica).
But it’s the backdrop that gives the scene a dream like - nightmare-like? - quality. The walls of the room, the curtains, the mirror reflecting the light, are all barely painted in, compared to the carefully-worked textures of the furnishings. They’re bathed in a flat vanilla shade, though part of the wall is underlaid with flatter beiges and greys, the exact colour of a bruise.
At this table, on these grotesque chairs, the dictator dealt death. Other works in the exhibition carry through this atmosphere of dread: rolls of Middle Eastern carpets look like piles of flesh (Skin), a spray-canned shadow of a heroic statue is cast on a baked yellow brick background (Statue), and pillars of fire burn in the desert (The Fountain).
Sami’s memories of the old country are showcased most obviously in Abu Ghraib, when the iconic photo of the tortured prisoner in crucifix pose (a repeated motif for artists these days) is rendered abstract by a mix of acrylic paints and spray can, reduced to a single shape, that somehow is immediately recognisable due to the infamy of the source material.
All in all, an intensely unsettling exhibition.
Mohammed Sami is at Modern Art (London). 23 March - 07 May 2022