Mohammed Sami review – phenomenal paintings send depth charges through Churchill’s home

<span>Disrupting Blenheim’s grand isolation with scorched surfaces, mud and chipboard … Chandelier, in After the Storm: Mohammed Sami at Blenheim Palace.</span><span>Photograph: Tom Lindboe/Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.</span>
Disrupting Blenheim’s grand isolation with scorched surfaces, mud and chipboard … Chandelier, in After the Storm: Mohammed Sami at Blenheim Palace.Photograph: Tom Lindboe/Courtesy of Blenheim Art Foundation.

The carpet is the colour of sweaty mince – pasty, anaemic, flecked with greys and browns. At its centre, four chairs are set around a circular table. They are heavy gilt, their backs crested with a baroque emblem – seats for people who like to feel important. Upholstered in electric blue damask, set around a plywood tabletop, their grandeur is revealed as a piece of theatrical pomp. Over the whole scene, viewed from above, expand four broad blades – the shadow of a ceiling fan. In Mohammed Sami’s world of nightmare symbolism and visual metaphor, those same blades might equally belong to a helicopter or a kitchen blender. In their shadow the carpet is the dark red of dried blood.

This 2023 painting, The Grinder, is a grim start to an exhibition of paintings that send depth charges through Blenheim Palace. The pomp, the bling, the baggage of Blenheim all have the capacity to kill contemporary art. It takes some chutzpah to pitch yourself against these silk-hung rooms and their frames of martial dukes and icy duchesses. The eight artists previously selected to show here have been global superstars, among them Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer and Maurizio Cattelan (whose gold toilet got pinched from the premises). Sami was far from an obvious choice. The Baghdad-born artist’s first institutional show at Camden Art Centre was a highlight of last year. He is an enthralling painter, but hardly a household name. The gamble turns out to have been an inspired one.

In a phenomenal undertaking, Sami has created a new body of work coolly tailored to the scale and visual language of the palace. Collectively, his paintings tell a counter story to that broadcast by the building itself: they speak not of the glory of victory in battle, but of mess, pain, trauma, absent bodies, lingering shadows. The state rooms of Blenheim are lined with tapestries showing noble commanders taking an overview of battles in the valleys beneath them. Sami instead offers a view from the ground up, from the inescapable thick of things.

Wiped Off hangs at the end of a corridor lined with display cabinets showing a lavish floral dining service. Plates, perhaps, off which military leaders and statesmen dined while carving up the world. It looks, from a distance, like a painting of a rifle leaning against a wall. Up close it is revealed as a mop leaning against rich damask wallpaper, positioned at the edge of a red pool – blood, perhaps – surrounded by smashed crockery. The red of the blood and wallpaper echo the utilitarian carpet of the room it hangs in, creating a pictorial extension of the space. This is the view of people working behind the scenes to clear up evidence of a fight or mishap, to restore the illusion of order.

Sami drinks up the decor of the adjoining Green Drawing Room and spits it out in a bold piece of pictorial theatre. After the Storm offers an impression of the silk brocade covering the surrounding wall but carries the ghost mark of a missing painting and the black pocks of bullet holes or shrapnel. Harmonious with the scale and tone of the room rather than a photorealistic rendering, the painting introduces the possibility of violent chaos ripping through Blenheim itself. Et in Arcadia Ego.

Into a line of family portraits Sami inserts the shadow of Winston Churchill – a picture in absentia, based on a familiar photograph taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1941. Against a thinly painted black background, Churchill’s silhouette appears as a black and clotted mass, its surface cracked and corroding. The collar and pocket handkerchief in the original photograph are here suggested by exposed patches of white revealed by the removal of patches of splintering paint. Titled Immortality, it instead evokes the ephemerality of fame and reputation, and the geopolitical churn.

Throughout the exhibition, Sami dances nimbly with the palette and scale of Blenheim, offering disconcerting subversions of its formal portraits, heavy gilt furniture, baroque chandeliers, regimental flags and military paraphernalia. In the exhibition’s boldest installation, all that is swept aside. The Eastern Gate is a vast and turbulent canvas stationed in the middle of the grandest reception room. A tangerine sky has the weird murk of a fire’s afterglow, air thickened with cinders or sand. Coronas of acidic light surround lamps strung from a mosque and minaret, visible between the outlines of jumbled and fallen trees. The emerald ground beneath is heavily rutted with tank tracks. The air is thick and toxic. Here is Baghdad, squatting in the dining room, refusing to allow you a comfortable view.

Sami has brought the war back home, disrupting Blenheim’s grand isolation with scorched surfaces, mud and chipboard. It is a show not of speculative fictions, but of dissolved geographies, plunging into the sense memories of conflict.

Mohammed Sami: After the Storm is at Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, until 6 October

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