Mohammed Sami - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Painting is the means by which I engage the traces of personal memory. I believe that the medium of painting has the capacity to record the ghosts of something lost, not present, and therefore become the symbolic register of the permanent.”
    —Mohammed Sami

    The eerie subconscious of Iraqi-born artist Mohammed Sami’s work touches at the very essence of the human experience, and yet a figure is rarely ever present. He deploys an expert understanding of light and perspective to create disquieting, psychological compositions that hint at an unnerving contextual history. Growing up in Baghdad, under the regime of Saddam Hussein, Sami bore witness to the devasting effects of both political instability and international warfare. After the commencement of the US-Iraqi war in 2003, he worked at the Ministry of Culture in Baghdad before being granted political asylum in Sweden in 2007.


    As a result, his work explores the ways in which trauma manifests in our memories, particularly regarding how we remember certain times or places. Everyday objects serve as poignant sources of reminder for the artist, and his large-scale canvases are usually fraught with symbolism and motifs. Having studied at The Institute of Fine Arts, Baghdad, Sami completed his BFA at Ulster University, Belfast and his MFA at Goldsmiths, London, where he now lives. He has held multiple international solo exhibitions across Europe, the Middle East and the United States, and has been the subject of two major exhibitions in 2023 at Luhring Augustine, New York and Camden Art Centre, London. His work is held in prestigious collections, such as Tate, London; Moderna Museet, Stockholm; Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO) Geneva; Iraqi Ministry of Culture, Baghdad; and Museum of Modern Art, New York.

    “I used the same strategies Islamic miniature painting uses to flatten space and make the setting unspecific. That’s the combination: make the familiar unfamiliar.”
    —Mohammed Sami

    In Childhood, a single lightbulb casts a yellowish beam down a dingy, dead-end corridor. Conversely, a beautifully woven Persian rug covers the floor, with brightly coloured children’s toys littered across it. Sami frequently uses unusual perspectives to create compositions that are discordant with our normal perception of things, and in doing so, a subliminal uneasiness is planted within the very foundations of his pieces. In the present work, the shaft of light wraps itself round the walls and ceiling of the corridor in a jarring, angular manner, creating an almost hypnotic spiral that leads towards the imposing walled-off end. The linear perspective of the rug is incongruent with that of the surrounding walls and ceiling, exaggerated by the strange shadows created by the erratic light.      



    The Anhalt Medallion Carpet, c. Early 16th Century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Image: © The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1946, 46.128


    Compositional distortion, a major motif within Sami’s work, presents a physical manifestation of anxiety, stemming from fear, loss and confusion. Whilst the disjointed viewpoint in Childhood may appear odd to a contemporary audience, it evokes the flattened linear perspective used by Persian artists of the 15th and 16th century. Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād’s Yusef and Zulaikha is regarded as a masterpiece of Islamic miniature illuminations and features a complex architectural composition. We are shown all rooms of the house at once as Zulaikha – wife of Potiphar – attempts to seduce the resistant Yusef. The myriad of stairs and corridors creates a confusing narrative space, and through a contemporary lens, the bizarre, complex architectural perspective emphasises the ensuing chaos between Yusef and Zulaikha. Childhood mirrors this spatial distortion, and Sami similarly uses intricate Persian patterning to further create a bizarre misrepresentation of a familiar space.


    Kamāl ud-Dīn Behzād, Yusef and Zulaikha, 1488. Image: ARTGEN / Alamy Stock Photo


    The disquieting atmosphere of the composition is heightened by the familiar and unthreatening objects on the floor - a green ball, a beach ball and a miniature truck. These are placed deliberately by Sami as a form of ‘uncertain remembering’: ‘Returning memories masquerade in light and shadow, and windows, or some everyday object. They don’t reveal themselves easily, and this is what makes them interesting’.i The Persian rug, similar to the Anhalt Medallion Carpet at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, evokes memories of Sami’s upbringing in Iraq, and its rich artistic history, which has suffered significant loss since the beginning of The Iraq War in 2003.ii  The scattered toys, depicted with a discordant, flat perspective, are redolent of childhood innocence, and their playful colours become garish in the austere light cast by the lightbulb.


    Without context, these objects represent the artist’s identity and titular infancy; however, nothing in Sami’s work is ever meant to be viewed in isolation. Surrounded by the stark, dilapidated corridor – like the squalid conditions where prisoners of war are often held – these objects come to symbolise the loss felt by the citizens and state of Iraq, the dead-end a poignant lack of hope or future. Sami has said that he hides ‘the traumatic image behind something entirely different, like a cactus or carpet on the floor… this helps to distract you from the main subject matter, which is trauma and conflict’.iii He spent much of his life using euphemism and allegory to hide his true political feelings and is now doing the same with his paintings. Nevertheless, the viewer is invited to unravel Sami’s true meanings. As in much of his other work, he uses materiality as a means of communicating the ephemerality of memory, as well as the desperate loss and destruction he, and other children of Iraq, have experienced firsthand.


    Collector’s Digest

    • Growing up in war-torn Iraq and seeking political asylum in Sweden, Mohammed Sami seeks to represent how trauma may affect our memories. His works play with light, shadow and perspective to create unsettling atmospheres, heightened by material motifs.

    • Sami is represented by Luhring Augustine and Modern Art and has been the subject of two major solo exhibitions in 2023, most recently at Camden Art Centre, London.

    • His work is held in prestigious collections, such as Tate in London, Moderna Museet in Stockholm, Musée d’art moderne et contemporain (MAMCO) in Geneva, Iraqi Ministry of Culture in Baghdad, and Museum of Modern Art in New York.



    i Mohammed Sami, quoted in Hetti Judah, ‘Mohammed Sami: ‘We can’t move forward without the power of the past’, Art Fund, 14 February, 2023, online.

    ii Dina Rizk Khoury, ‘Iraq’s lost Cultural Heritage’, Perspectives on History, vol. 41, issue 6, September, 2003, online.

    iii Mohammed Sami, quoted in Elizabeth Fullerton, ‘‘I hide the traumatic image behind a cactus or carpet’ – the paintings of Iraqi exile Mohammed Sami’, The Guardian, 21 March, 2022, online.

    • Provenance

      York Art Gallery
      Private Collection
      Acquired from the above by the present owner



acrylic on linen
170.6 x 117 cm (67 1/8 x 46 1/8 in.)
Painted in 2018.

Full Cataloguing

£80,000 - 120,000 ‡♠

Sold for £228,600

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023