Mohammed Sami’s review – great pictures add depth charges through Churchill’s house

The carpet is the color of sweaty mince – pasty, anaemic, flecked with gray and brown. In the middle, four chairs are placed around a circular table. They are heavily gilded, with baroque seats on their backs – seats for people who want to be important. Encased in an electric blue dam, set around a plywood tabletop, its majesty is revealed as a large-scale piece of theatre. Over the whole scene, seen from above, spread four broad blades – the shadow of a ceiling fan. In Mohammed Sami’s world of nightmarish symbolism and visual metaphor, those same blades might apply to a helicopter or a kitchen blender. In its shadow is the dark red carpet of dried blood.

This painting from 2023, The Grinder, is a great start to an exhibition of paintings that send depth charges through Blenheim Palace. The grandeur, the bling, the Blenheim luggage has the potential to kill contemporary art. It takes some chutzpah to brace yourself against these hanging silk rooms with their frames of martial dukes and icy duchess. The eight artists previously chosen to show here were global superstars, including Ai Weiwei, Jenny Holzer and Maurizio Cattelan (whose gold toilet was pinched from the premises). Sami was far from an obvious choice. The Baghdad-born artist’s first institutional show at the Camden Art Center was a highlight last year. He is an inspiring painter, but hardly a household name. Gambling becomes gambling.

In a remarkable feat, Sami has created a new work adapted to the scale and visual language of the palace. Together, his pictures tell a story contrary to the broadcast at the building itself: they do not speak of the glory of victory in battle, but of chaos, pain, trauma, absent bodies, long shadows. Blenheim’s state rooms feature tapestries depicting noble commanders surveying battles in the valleys below. Rather, Sami offers a view from the ground up, from the inevitable array of things.

Wiped Off hangs at the end of a corridor lined with display cabinets displaying stunning floral food service. Plates, perhaps, that military leaders and statesmen ate while carving the world. It looks, from a distance, like a painting of a rifle leaning against a wall. Nearby it is revealed as a mop leaning against rich damask wallpaper, perched on the edge of a pool of red – blood, perhaps – surrounded by smashed crockery. The blood red and the wallpaper reflect the utilitarian carpet of the room where it hangs, creating a picturesque extension of the space. This is the view of people working behind the scenes to clean up evidence of a fight or disaster, to restore the illusion of order.

Sami drinks the decor of the adjacent Green Drawing Room and wears it out in a bold piece of pictorial theatre. After the Storm gives a glimpse of the silk brocade covering the surrounding wall but bears the ghostly mark of a missing painting and the black pockets of bullet holes or shrapnel. In keeping with the scale and tone of the room rather than a photorealistic representation, the painting introduces the possibility of violent chaos ripping through Blenheim itself. And in Arcadia Ego.

In a line of family portraits Sami inserts the shadow of Winston Churchill – a picture in absentia, based on a well-known photograph taken by Yousuf Karsh in 1941. Against a thinly painted black background, Churchill’s silhouette appears as a black and mottled mass, its surface. cracked and corroding. The collar and pocket handkerchief in the original photograph are complimented here by revealing patches of white where patches of splintering paint have been removed. Called Immortality, it shows instead the ephemera of fame and fortune, and the geopolitical turmoil.

Throughout the exhibition, Sami dances venomously with Blenheim’s palette and scale, offering his formal portraits, heavy gilded furniture, baroque chandeliers, regimental flags and military paraphernalia. In the exhibition’s bold installation, all that has been swept aside. The East Gate is a huge, disturbing canvas that sits in the center of the grandest reception room. The strange murk is burning fire in a tangerine sky, air thickened with ash or sand. Crowns of acid light surround lamps strung from mosques and minarets, visible between the outline of bruised and fallen trees. The emerald land below is heavily pockmarked with tank tracks. The air is thick and toxic. This is Bagdad, squatting in the dining room, refusing to allow you a comfortable view.

Sami brought the war back home, disrupting the great isolation of Blenheim with scorched surfaces, mud and a devastating flood. It is a show not of speculative fiction, but of disaggregated geography, delving into the sensory memories of the conflict.

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

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