The first work I ever came across by Faisal Samra was a bouquet of fake roses, dripped with wax to appear permanently wet, mummified in swathes of rags and paper. It quivered ominously in the XVA’s Summer Collection. Affronting, even to the point of being slightly queasy, it’s an inimitable atmosphere of starkness and affront that marks Samra out as an artist and which runs into his latest show.
This strange world that he presents is a primal, organic place. ‘The artwork is a creature by itself,’ he tells us from his base in Bahrain. ‘I wanted to present a different side of my personality; I started out experimenting on another shape, another support on which to paint.’ Samra has pulled out pieces that he produced back in 2001 for this latest show. Moving away from a traditional canvas stretched two-dimensionally flat, Samra wraps his canvas around a wire mesh. The canvas itself wrinkles into a leathery skin-like form and, when hung, it takes on the slightly unnerving shape of a human torso. ‘There are elements of a human body to these shapes, but it’s a very minimal body – without a head or legs,’ he explains. Samra, it seems, has set out to create a living canvas on which to work and scribes bizarre totemic markings (or ‘tattoos’ as he calls them) directly onto his creations.
It’s a departure from his previous show at XVA, a series of photographs and video works titled Distorted Reality that the artist developed from improvised performance. Donning rags and masks, Samra explored what he refers to as ‘the effect of the image’. ‘With that series, I wanted to make people aware of all the images that surround us. How they affect us and how they try to hypnotise us.’ In each of the works, the masked, ragged figure struggles to be free from the confines of the cloth that binds them. As the subject writhes in impotent rage, the photographs show Samra lashing out at the camera as he tears at his head, neck and face. ‘It was a performance showing someone who is completely distorted. It was about the bombardment of images around us. The bandages represent an accumulation of this problem.’
Social criticism of this sort is not to be found in Samra’s current exhibition, however. ‘This new show reflects more of my experiments in art and in the tissue of creation,’ he explains. ‘These are very personal works. They emerged from a search for something that has my printout, my personality in it.’
Cryptic markings adorn each of his canvas ‘bodies’. Some feature vague, impressionistic faces, vacant of features but each bearing an ominous T in the forehead. Others contain broad streaks across the canvas in what the artist refers to as his ‘Fountains’. These bulges of canvas, some with burns that reveal the exposed mesh beneath (‘the skeleton’ as he says), emerge as raw evocations of the body.
It’s as if, after the frenzied seam of social criticism that figured in Distorted Reality, Samra needed to now exhibit another angle of himself, the side that wanders inwardly, to invent a living, breathing creation that has his ‘printout’ within them.
‘Any artist that works sincerely, and looks into themselves as they work, develops an internal soul that runs through what they do. I’ve tried to keep this internal soul throughout my career, but I have to always change the physiognomy of what I’m working on. If an artist carries a concept inside them, then this will travel organically through their different works.’
Perhaps the most striking element of these works is that, physically, they verge on the repulsive. The creases in the skin-like texture and the primal bulge of the canvas give the appearance of ageing flesh. It’s as if Samra avoided anything polished or too decorous in each of these works. ‘Inscribed in one of the pieces here, there’s a line that says in Arabic, “Let’s stop and awaken our conscience because the smell of last night’s dinner is coming strongly from our mouths,”’ he says, and tells us he feels that the art market is flooded by decorative art. ‘It’s hollow art. I would pay anything for a piece of work that contains a lot of sensations and feeling – even if it didn’t look nice, but it is strong.’
So perhaps exhibiting these bodies – until now, hidden away in the artist’s studio – is Samra’s way of showing a pure and primal creation from himself. Rather than dress up his creations, he’s happy to reveal them for what they are. ‘An artwork has to have a statement,’ he says. ‘It has to provoke, to scratch your eyes in one way or another.’
XVA Gallery (04 353 5383) Bastakiya. October 20-November 13.