Sarah Maple is brilliantly funny, fiercely political – and unashamedly hooked on the Kardashians.
Dismissing modern celebrity culture as vapid and meaningless is a treasured pastime for a certain kind of person. You know the type: the co-worker who takes great pride in not knowing ‘what a Cardi B is’, or the cousin who’d rather die than admit to watching Love Island. These people often mourn ostentatiously for times gone by, when stars were so distant that they may as well have lived in another galaxy. To them, celebrity means Audrey Hepburn and James Dean, not Gigi Hadid and Justin Bieber.
Sarah Maple is not one of those people. The Sussex-based artist is fascinated by modern celebrities and how we consume information about their lives, from social media to television to clickbait articles. She once created a video piece called Keeping Up with the Kapulets, in which a group of theatre actors performed an episode of Keeping Up with the Kardashians in the style of a Shakespearean play.
At a recent exhibition in New York, meanwhile, she displayed a series of marble slabs engraved with the most inane headlines from the MailOnline’s (extensive) archive – think ‘Prince Harry’s Ex Chelsy Davy Pulls A Hair From Her Mouth’, ‘Tired Ben Affleck Sports a Beard’ and the legendary ‘Lauren Goodger Narrowly Avoids Puddle’.
Choosing which MailOnline headlines to immortalise in stone is something of an art in itself, Maple says.
“Sometimes the headline might not be that funny, but if the celebrity’s a ridiculous celebrity then it’s really funny,” she explains. “Like, I’ve just done one that says something about Dean Gaffney giving away [his] bank details on Instagram.” She laughs. “To me, that’s just funny because it’s Dean Gaffney.”
It might seem like Maple is turning her nose up at the MailOnline, but she’s quick to emphasise that she – like most of us – is not immune to the sidebar of shame. “I was actually clicking on [these headlines],” she says. “I was drawn to them, too.”
She disputes the idea that celebrity culture is “meaningless and throwaway and doesn’t matter. I kind of think that [it does] matter.” People might roll their eyes at the ubiquity of Kim Kardashian, but “the impact that she’s had on social media and selfie culture and stuff is huge,” Maple says. “And it interests me that I might be influenced by Kim Kardashian without even knowing that I am.”
Maple, who graduated from Kingston University with a BA in Fine Art in 2007, describes herself as “an old school feminist”. This ideology is often gleefully apparent in her work: her self-portrait Opposite to a Feminist shows her with kohl-rimmed eyes and long pink nails, holding a sign reading ‘The opposite to a feminist is an a***hole’.
“I’ve made all these other controversial pictures in the past, but that’s the one that really gets to people,” she says. “People either laugh or get really angry about it, because they think I’m calling them an a***hole.”
But, like many feminists, Maple is still fascinated by celebrities whose status as figures of female empowerment is – shall we say – a little more complicated.
“I still watch Keeping up with the Kardashians,” she says. “I look at their Instagrams; I look at their beauty. I don’t think that I follow their style, but I’m still interested in what they’re wearing and their make-up. I don’t think it’s as simple as just saying that pop culture figures are not worth paying attention to.”
Not all of Maple’s work is overtly feminist, but it is almost always politically explicit. Raised Muslim, she often explores her dual British-Iranian heritage through her art: in her piece Keep Calm (Inshallah), the Arabic phrase for ‘God willing’ and the Islamic crescent moon are superimposed over the classic British ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ poster. Her recent exhibition in New York was titled Thoughts and Prayers, a reference to the passive platitude generally offered by right-wing US politicians in response to mass shootings. And at an upcoming exhibition at Gateshead’s Baltic gallery, she will show work inspired by the Brexit vote.
Similarly provocative was a piece Maple made during her degree, a triptych of self-portraits showing her wearing a burka, a bikini and a suit, holding signs reading ‘I WISH I HAD A PENIS’ – ‘BECAUSE THEN I’D F**K YOU’ – ‘THEN STEAL YOUR JOB’. The artist says she wants to broaden “the idea of what a Muslim woman is”, by making images that are “different from the ones you see in the media – more funny or lighthearted”.
If you’re an artist who tackles subjects like feminism, religion and politics with your tongue firmly in your cheek, you have to be prepared for a backlash (and that’s before you’ve even got to the snobs who think Keeping up with the Kardashians isn’t appropriate inspiration for fine art). But Maple is enthusiastic at the prospect of starting difficult conversations.
“The pushback motivates me,” she says. “I think that’s originally what got me into making this kind of [feminist] work at university: I was annoyed because I felt like the men were taken more seriously than the women.”
She later got the sense that many of her fellow students, including some of the women, were irritated by her “funny work that took the mickey” out of sexism.
“But I think it can be quite funny when you get someone annoyed about something,” Maple says, happily. “You know you’ve hit a nerve.”
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Images: Courtesy of Sarah Maple