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Sarah Maple: “You carry this history in your body – it can be heavy”
The artist on the Kenyan influence to her heritage, reflecting on her childhood and the importance of language
Hi, welcome back to Mixed Messages! This week I’m speaking to artist Sarah Maple, who is of mixed Indian and white British heritage. I first came across Sarah at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), with a piece titled The Past Is Now. Inspired by her family history and its links to empire, the piece includes portraits of her parents and symbolism linked to her mixed identity. I was thrilled to spend time with Sarah to explore this more – read her story below.
I’d love to hear about your family background.
I’ve only really understood my background in the past few years, it’s a bit complicated. My family have always said we’re Iranian, but none of our heritage or culture is linked to Iran. It’s Indian; the language, food, clothes, traditions, everything. My grandfather used to read, write and speak in Farsi, but apparently a lot of educated Indians did. My mum’s family don’t know much about their grandparents, all those records have been lost. It’s kind of sad because I can never trace my family history.
My mum was born in Nairobi, Kenya. Her parents were born in the Punjab but went to Pakistan and then Kenya. The language was a mixture of Swahili, Punjabi and Urdu, the culture was Indian Punjabi, but it’s different because they were brought up in Kenya, so when my mum moved to Birmingham when she was 12 she said she felt different from the other Asian kids.
My dad’s British. They didn’t have an arranged marriage, which was controversial for my mum. My dad converted to please the family because that was the done thing then, but he didn’t stick to it. The fact that my mum ‘didn’t do the right thing’ has had ramifications that have lasted all these years. That’s something I’ve explored not directly in my work, but I’ve been reflecting on it now that I’m older and have my own child.
You grew up in Eastbourne, what was that like for you?
It’s very multicultural now – back then it wasn’t at all. I went to a Catholic school and I felt different for sure. I always just wished that I had a friend that was Muslim that could understand and relate to me.
I didn’t really make friends with any other Muslims until I was about 16 or 17 when I did my A Levels and mixed with more people and got a Muslim boyfriend. They saw me as a white girl, I think there was an exotic thing about being white and Muslim which is really messed up. Now I realise how difficult that was, but growing up you sort of deal with it.
Did you ever speak to your family about being mixed?
Me and my sister talk about it quite a lot. My brother has no interest in it. He looks white, so no-one’s ever asked him where he’s from. Me and my sister get that all the time, so we’re constantly having to reexamine that. My mum talks a lot about her upbringing and the racism she experienced, but I don’t think my wider Asian family understands the complexity of being mixed. They’ll say things like “oh, white people,” and as a kid I took that to not mean me. I understand them doing that – they’ve been othered, so they’re othering as well.
Now I’m older, I married a British guy with blue eyes and my daughter has all his features. I feel like when they say ‘white people,’ she looks white even though she is Punjabi at heart. Now I’m thinking about any internalised self-hatred I might have because of those conversations. I’m both Punjabi and white, so it’s tricky.
I’m really pleased we’re having these conversations because when I was growing up, I didn't feel like there was anyone like me. Now there are so many mixed people. When you meet someone else who’s mixed, it’s a lovely camaraderie.
Do you think we have a strong vocabulary as mixed people to talk about ourselves?
Probably not. I’d always say “I’m half-this, half-that,” but you can’t split yourself down the middle. Everything is so mixed. I always used to say ‘mixed-race,’ but then I realised the word ‘race’ is really problematic. Now I say ‘dual-heritage’ or ‘mixed-heritage,’ or ‘I’ve had a multicultural upbringing.’
My mum sees herself as Kenyan, not Indian at all. It’s funny because I’ve absorbed all the Indian culture but skipped Kenya. When I went to India, that felt like home. At that point, I didn't know where we were actually from, but I knew that the culture felt right.
How have you connected to your culture over time?
I think food and language is really important, especially now that I’ve got my daughter. My husband does all the cooking, but I’m anxious that my girl needs beautiful curries and I need to learn to make these things. I want to teach them to her because she’s going to lose all of that. It’s important for her to know her background. I’m trying to teach her Punjabi as much as I can, but it’s difficult because she’s surrounded by everything English all the time. Language is important because it allows you to express yourself in another way.
I first came across you through your piece The Past Is Now at BMAG – can you share more about how your heritage has impacted your work as an artist?
I carry my heritage around with me all the time. When I came out of university, the work I was making was very directly about my mixed heritage. I was making humorous pop culture images of Muslim women post 9/11. It was very much showing that Muslim women aren’t all victims made to wear black, unpicking that narrative and making it fun. Then I moved onto feminism, but it was always informed by my heritage. When Brexit happened, I made a lot of work about the refugee crisis, immigration and the language around that – you do take those conversations personally.
Britain is what it is because of the empire. My mum’s family were forced out of India – they were happy there. I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about what it means to be British, and it was only in my 30s that I fully understood that and the impact on my heritage. I reflect on that in my work, looking at variance. You carry around this history in your body physically, it can be heavy.
What’s the best thing about being mixed?
I think it gives me a different perspective on things, I can see things from both sides. I feel like I’ve got a rich culture in that way, and I am very proud to pass that strong mix and understanding of who she is down to my daughter.
Can you sum up your mixed experience in a word?
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Mixed Messages is a weekly exploration of the mixed-race experience, from me, Isabella Silvers. My mom is Punjabi (by way of East Africa) and my dad is white British, but finding my place between these two cultures hasn’t always been easy. That’s why I started Mixed Messages, where each week I’ll speak to a prominent mixed voice to delve into what it really feels like to be mixed.