50 years of Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammad

A retrospective exhibition revealed the remarkable humanity of pioneering Kuwaiti sculptor Sami Mohammad.

Kuwait’s celebrated art center Contemporary Art Platform presented “Sami Mohammad: A Retrospective” from March to June 2015. It is the first in-depth survey of the artist’s career and reveals the artist’s pioneering life story as well as his drive to pay testament to the vulnerability and resilience of humankind. 

Sami Mohammad, 'Sabra and Shatila' (detail), 1982, bronze, 55 x 58 x 25 cm. Ed. 4 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Barjeel Art Foundation.

Sami Mohammad, ‘Sabra and Shatila’ (detail), 1982, bronze, 55 x 58 x 25 cm, ed. 4 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Barjeel Art Foundation.

Sami Mohammad (b. 1943, Sharq, Kuwait) is one of the great pioneers of the cultural and artistic movements of the Arabian Gulf and the Arab world. He studied at The College of Fine Arts in Cairo from 1966 to 1970 and trained as a sculptor at the Johnson Atelier in New Jersey from 1973 to 1975. A founding member of the Free Atelier in 1960 and the Kuwait Society for Formative Arts in 1967, he was also the first artist to represent Kuwait at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013.

Presented by Contemporary Art Platform, “Sami Mohammad: A Retrospective” runs from 14 March to 14 June 2015 and highlights the veteran artist’s long and distinguished career. Art Radar summarises key points from an interview between Mohammad and Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi published in the exhibition catalogue, which reveals the artist’s extraordinary life journey.

Born into a cultural renaissance

Sami Mohammad grew up in Kuwait when the country was in the midst of a thriving cultural renaissance. At the age of 19, he played a key role in the founding of the Free Atelier, which brought specialised tutors into Kuwait including the Egyptian sculptor Anwar AlSerougi. Mohammad says in the interview with Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi:

[AlSerougi’s] work fascinated us. […] We had found in sculpture what we were looking for. […] AlSerougi did not withhold anything and […] educated us on the basics of statue building, carving and casting. Later on, I developed a strong bond with this great art form, which became a major part of my life. Despite my passion for painting, sculpture became my main interest and the primary focus of my visits with leading artists and to exhibitions and museums […].

Sami Mohammad, 'The Sad Man', 1966, black Basalt, 26 x 14 x 13 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘The Sad Man’, 1966, black Basalt, 26 x 14 x 13 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, 'Worship', 1966, stone, 41 x 15 x 16 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘Worship’, 1966, stone, 41 x 15 x 16 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

In 1966 Mohammad traveled to Egypt, where he lived for five years on a scholarship from the Ministry of Education. His studies in Egypt were comprehensive and rigorous; he remembers having doctors as tutors for anatomy and the great Egyptian historian Muhammad Sidqi al-Gabakhangi teaching history and art history. Mohammad cites Mahmoud Mokhtar as an artist who influenced him greatly:

I was very fond of [Mokhtar’s work] due to the marvellous geometry of form, and distinguished study of space. He left a real mark on modern Egyptian art. He was greatly inspired by Pharaonic art, but worked to develop it and link it to modernism. […] This is something that left a great impression on me. How was he able to attain this level of creativity? I would say that I was not influenced by his work per se, but by the way he was able to develop himself to reach this astounding level of creativity […].

Breaking moulds and making history

At that time, sculpture was a new and provocative art form in conservative Kuwaiti society. Mohammad recalls:

The first person to object was my mother, God rest her soul, who asked me not to become a professional sculptor as this was prohibited in our religion. The list of those who objected grew to include other family members and acquaintances […].

Despite the opposition, Mohammad was steadfast in his passion. He focused on refining his technique, adopting a purely aesthetic approach and eschewing any political or social influences and motives. He says in the interview:

I focused my interests on accomplishing works from a purely aesthetic basis, which do not espouse any political or social issue. I sought to highlight the sensuous side in my sculptures, away from any political influence or ideological motive. This neutral posture was at odds with the orientations of some Egyptian artists at the time.

Sami Mohammad, 'The Hunger', 1970, synthetic marble (damanged during the invasion), 105 x 54 x 84 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Abdul Mohsen Hayat.

Sami Mohammad, ‘The Hunger’, 1970, synthetic marble (damanged during the invasion), 105 x 54 x 84 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Abdul Mohsen Hayat.

Sami Mohammad, 'Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah', 1972, bronze, 300 x 250 x 170 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Al-Rai Al-Aam.

Sami Mohammad, ‘Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah’, 1972, bronze, 300 x 250 x 170 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Al-Rai Al-Aam.

Mohammad’s dedication to his art was recognised when he was invited to create monumental historical sculptures that have since become representative of Kuwaiti identity. They include the vast and meticulously constructed statue of the late Sheikh Abdullah Al-Salem Al-Sabah, considered one of the most significant works of art in the Gulf. The sculpture took a whole year to complete; Mohammad recalls:

That was the first time I had worked on something that big and that important. I wanted to be very meticulous since it chronicled the career of an important public figure. […] The face alone took many months. […] I would form it and then form it again many times, because I wanted it to be perfect […], I would go out and ask them whether they could identify the face […].

A profound human awareness

Mohammad also created statues depicting tragic historical events. His works address the core of the human condition, capturing its vulnerability and resilience. When discussing the statue Sabra and Shatila, Mohammad says:

This was a major and tragic event in beloved Lebanon, but I don’t want to talk about it from the political angle, but rather from the humane angle. […] The work expresses our surrender and tells the story of the innocents whose humanity was violated atrociously.

Sami Mohammad, 'Paralysis & Resistance', 1980, bronze, 60 x 35 x 40 cm. Ed. 2 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘Paralysis & Resistance’, 1980, bronze, 60 x 35 x 40 cm, ed. 2 AP. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, 'Penetration 2', 1979 - 2014, bronze, 82 x 70 x 52 cm. Ed. 2/6. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘Penetration 2’, 1979 – 2014, bronze, 82 x 70 x 52 cm, ed. 2/6. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

In The Penetration and An Attempt to Get Out, Mohammad expresses a powerful and poignant ideal – an apolitical call for liberty and self-determination. His figures break through captivity and obstruction, embodying man’s heroic quest for freedom in spite of hardship and oppression. He says of The Penetration: 

The idea of the work revolves around not despairing, and the need to keep trying. […] I wanted to express the idea that a person can overcome problems and difficulties, by insisting on moving forward despite many obstacles.

Sami Mohammad, 'The Rush', 1978, bronze, 60 x 35 x 12 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘The Rush’, 1978, bronze, 60 x 35 x 12 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, 'An Attempt to Get Out 2', 1978, bronze, 140 x 130 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Sami Mohammad, ‘An Attempt to Get Out 2’, 1978, bronze, 140 x 130 x 100 cm. Image courtesy the artist and Contemporary Art Platform.

Mohammad’s profound awareness of the human condition caused him to create sculptures that continue to be relevant across time and space. As Dia Azzawi concludes in an essay in the exhibition catalogue:

Mohammad is concerned not with a particular society, but with the whole of humanity, in all its rich diversity.

 Michele Chan

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Related Topics: Kuwaiti artists, sculpture, art and politicsgallery shows, events in Kuwait

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