Sami Mohammad, the celebrated Kuwaiti artist and sculptor, whose work has attracted attention not only from the Arab world but across the globe, has pioneered for over fifty years to promote his art internationally. Most of his works deal with the ideas of freedom, oppression, genocide and suffering. Among the best known are ‘Box’, ‘Sabra and Shatila’, ‘Hunger’ and ‘Mother’.
Born in 1943 in Sharq, he studied at the College of Fine Arts in Cairo from 1966 to 1970 and trained as a sculptor from 1973 to 1975 at the Johnson Atelier in New Jersey. He was a founding member of both the Free Atelier in 1960 and of the Kuwait Society for Formative Arts in 1967. One of his works was presented at the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, which was the first time Kuwait participated in the event. He has also written a book about his work and career, The Art of Sami Mohammad, which was published in 1995.
In the following interview with The Kuwait Times earlier this year, the artist revealed some of his impressions and inspirations:
KT: When did you become an artist? Which artists inspired you?
Sami Mohammad: I was talented since childhood, but I owe my success to my Egyptian teacher Anwar Seraj at the Kuwaiti Free Art Atelier, which was created in 1959, when I was 16 years old. Seraj taught me how to sculpt and directed me in the correct way.
KT: When did you become an artist? Are you self-taught or classically trained?
Mohammad: I started sculpting in my twenties. I developed myself in this area in late 1960s in Egypt, specializing in all categories in sculpture, and I wanted to specialize in human anatomy.
KT: What inspires you as an artist?
Mohammad: What has inspired me is the issue of human suffering. Through my exposure to the daily news and tragedies that I see every day, it is inspiring me to be a mirror to what is happening to people since 1970. Kuwait, my country, is secure and stable though.
KT: What advice can you give to budding artists?
Mohammad: I advise beginners turn to a professional sculptor to be trained professionally. I hope that the young sculptors are serious in their work, because it requires patience and a lot of effort. I’m ready to teach anyone who wants to learn more, and I am already training two amazing young men who aspire to be sculptors.
KT: Does the government support your work?
Mohammad: The government supports us artists via the Free Art Atelier, which was the reason why I grew up as a sculptor. The government supports us by providing art materials, and we were sent abroad to learn more.
KT: What materials do you use?
Mohammad: I use stone, clay, wood, basalt, aluminum, iron and marble.
KT: Did you face problems in Kuwait or in the region for showing your kind of art?
Mohammad: What I really face is that in our Arab society, sculpture is ‘forbidden’. When I started my work, my mother told me that sculpture is haram because God will punish me for making these human figures and will ask me to give them a soul – then he will send me to hell. I’m a rational person and think Almighty God knows what I can do and what I can’t. He knows that I know he is the only one who can put souls inside people. A long time ago before Islam, people practiced idol worship. But history will not repeat. Ours is an open mind now.
KT: Why do you focus on women’s bodies and trapped people?
Mohammad: At first, I liked to sculpt women’s bodies, but after the 1970s, I began to embody the cause of suffering and moved away from the female form because it cannot bear the conflict and violence, which I want to show. For that, a strong and muscular body is required.
KT: What are you working on now and what are your plans for the future?
Mohammad: I never stop working. Even now, when I’m 70 years old, I receive orders. I am a fulltime artist. All my life I have worked as an artist.
KT: When did you make your first sculpture?
Mohammad: In 1971. It was a figure of ‘hunger’.
KT: Are there other members of your family who are artists?
Mohammad: There is no one in my family linked to art, but my children are interested in music and photography and they appreciate my work.
KT: What do you like doing when you are not making sculptures?
Mohammad: I like to play the lute, listen to music, take pictures of my work and I am making a documentary about my works.
KT: How did you learn to weld?
Mohammad: I learned welding and sculpting techniques through specialized courses.
KT: Who is your typical client?
Mohammad: My clients visit me at my home, and they trust me because I work hard and I’m devoted to them. I’m honest with my clients. When I make the sculptures, I tell them how many pieces I will make. When you make one piece, the price will be higher. My sculptures begin from KD 30,000 up to KD 100,000. My expensive sculptures have been gifted to Qatar and Dubai.
KT: Do you sell your works online?
Mohammad: No I do not. I deal with people face-to-face. Till now, I take orders from customers directly. My sculptures are renowned in all Arab and Western countries.
KT: How does the actual sculpting process work? How long does it take?
Mohammad: First, the sculptor should choose the base material, and the time will depend on the size and shape of the statue. I find it difficult to carve on demand. It is easy for me to work with peace of mind, and it may take weeks or months. My ‘Sabra and Shatila’ piece took months to finish.