Art that Moves

Sara Shamma is a renowned painter whose works can be found in both public and private collections around the globe. Shamma was born in Damascus, Syria (1975) to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother. She graduated from the Painting Department of the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus in 1998. She moved to London in 2016 under the auspices of an Exceptional Talent Visa where she currently lives and works. Shamma’s practice focuses on death and humanity expressed mainly through self-portraits and children painted in a life-like visceral way. Her works can be divided into series that reflect often prolonged periods of research, sometimes extending over years. Sara shares her story with us in this interview. Here is a conversation with Sara on her work and art. 

What set the ball rolling on your engagement with art?
I started at a very early age. I used to like painting a lot when I was four and I was encouraged a lot by my family. I used to paint on the ground and the furniture. My parents were very happy and supportive and never told me off. When I turned 14, I realized this was my path, and thought that I could do anything I wanted in art. I entered the Institute of Fine Arts in Damascus for two years, and then entered the University of Damascus for four years to study painting. I graduated in 1998. I started doing exhibitions in Damascus, Lebanon, and Europe, USA, Canada, and other countries, from thereon.  

Your art engages with a range of themes - but the common factor is the portrayal of humanity. Can you speak about your artistic inclinations and talk about what motivates them?
I have always been interested in human beings and humanity. Since a very young age, I used to gaze at the hands or eyes of any person I met. Any human being is a whole universe to discover. That is why I was interested in the human being, their state of mind, and everything related to their state of expression. One of these themes is self-portraiture. When I discovered that I could do all this gazing and diving into myself before the mirror, the mirror became my best friend. One human being stands for humanity and for the whole universe. This defines my main area of interest in painting. 

Aside from thematic exhibits talking about Birth, Death, and Love, you also put together a very evocative exhibit called “World Civil War Portraits.” Can you tell us about this curation?
I did this in 2014-2015. I was living in Lebanon then. I moved out of Damascus in the end of 2012 to Lebanon, to my mother's town because my mother is Lebanese, and I moved there with my children because of the war in Syria. I moved with my children, and my husband continued to live in Damascus and visited us periodically. That was the story of most families in Syria - the families moved to Lebanon and the husbands remained in Syria because their businesses were there. The war was raging, and I was emotionally affected by everything that was happening. I used to smell blood all the time even when there wasn't any blood around me. I heard the sounds of war all the time. I put these series together at that point. A huge war was happening in my country. 

Right now, you’re showcasing Modern Slavery in London. How did that series come about?
The main thing that inspired my exhibition is an incident that happened in 2014 when ISIS kidnapped Yazidi women in Northern Iraq and Syria. They also kidnapped a host of other women from other backgrounds and communities. These women were treated as sex slaves and were auctioned like in the olden time slave trade. I found a contract online that talked about this practice and was drawn to focus on this. I have always tried to understand the situation of the domestic workers in the Middle East. They never had any rights and were treated as slaves. I drew portraits of many of them. I couldn’t do anything in 2014, but when I came to London, when King’s College London approached me to be an artist in residence with them, I thought about this topic. It seemed like a good way to collaborate. I collaborated with the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, with Dr Sian Oram, who was interested in the issue and was also doing research. She collaborated with the Helen Bamber Foundation which supported women who had traumatic pasts. I met 8-9 women through the Foundation and interacted with them through interviews. Dr Sian trained me on how to interview them sensitively and with respect for all that they had undergone. It was very disturbing, and I couldn’t sleep. I began imagining all the voices and smells – it is what I do. I was inspired by their stories when I worked on my paintings thereafter, and I tried to communicate the feelings behind the stories that I had learned from these women.

Have you had any resistance in response to the art you create? How have you responded to it?
 I have not faced “resistance” to my work in that sense of the term, but it has definitely been empowering to see people being moved by the art. Sometimes, I see people looking at the art and crying, or tearing up – and that has been very powerful because it really means that it has had an impact.