Double Motherhood, artwork by Sara Shamma in oil and acrylic.
Muhammad Yusuf, Features Writer
Modern Slavery, an exhibition of paintings by London-based Syrian artist Sara Shamma, will be shown at Stockwood Discovery Centre, Luton, UK in August and September 2021. It is the result of Shamma’s 2019 research-focussed residency at King’s College London, where she was based within the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN), working closely with Dr Siân Oram and in partnership with the Helen Bamber Foundation. Dr Oram is Senior Lecturer in Women’s Mental Health at the IoPPN. As part of her residency, Shamma conducted interviews with women who have lived experience of modern slavery, as well as with academics and experts in the field. The resulting figurative work considers the meaning of survival, endurance and recovery from the survivors’ perspectives.
The exhibition consists of a series of large-scale paintings and oil sketches. After becoming aware of the display and sale of women and girls in slave markets in Syria and Iraq, Shamma was moved to explore and draw attention to the psychological impact of modern slavery. Her works draw attention to this pressing global issue through a new series of large-scale portraits.
Shamma says that “after the first interview with a survivor, I couldn’t sleep, I was imagining pictures, noises, smells … after meeting several women and hearing their stories, I went back to my studio and started working without any plans about the outcome of my work. “I think the sub-conscious is the source of creativity, these paintings are my reaction about what I learned; they are not illustration of what happened, but the feeling that these stories leave in you.”
Modern slavery is one of the world’s largest and most complex human rights issues. Tackling it requires evidence from a range of disciplines and sectors across a range of methodologies. It is estimated that human trafficking and modern slavery affects an estimated 40 million people worldwide. Shamma is one of Syria’s most celebrated contemporary artists, whose works can be found in both public and private collections around the world. Born in Damascus, Syria, to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother, she moved to London in 2016, where she currently lives and works, under the auspices of an Exceptional Talent Visa.
She has been the recipient of various international art awards and was a prizewinner in the 2004 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery, London; she became the United Nations World Food programmes ‘Celebrity Partner’ in 2010.
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. She believes that death gives meaning to life, and rather than steering away from a subject that is increasingly taboo in contemporary culture, she considers the impact of grief and deep internal emotions. The Syrian conflict has a distinct impact on the way she portrays her subjects. Working mainly from life and photographs, she uses oils to create a hyper realistic scene, using transparent lines and motion, to portray a distant and deep void. From a very early age, she could be found drawing on the walls and floors of her home in Damascus where she was provided with a studio, rather than the more traditional playroom given to young children.
By age fourteen, she realised that while she was confident in drawing and painting whatever she was presented with, and despite experimenting with other materials including sculpture, it was as a painter that she was, and remains, most fulfilled. While drawings do play a role in her work, they are not preparatory studies for her large-scale paintings. Kathleen Soriano, British independent arts curator, writer and television broadcaster, opines that “the richness and complexity of Shamma’s paintings belies the emptiness with which she approaches their making.” Shamma, notes Soriano, always begins immediately on the canvas, but without a sense of what she is going to make. “That lack of foreknowledge of what she will paint is a vital part of her process and is complemented by the subconscious state that she likes to bring herself to before beginning a painting.”
Keeping one eye looking straight ahead and the other turning to the side, the artist perceives a double image and is able to define the subtle differences in colour, light and form that each eye receives. That sense of a double image goes some way to explaining the presence of multiple figures and ghostly repetitions in her work. Shamma has closely observed the work of artists such as Rembrandt, Georges de la Tour, Francis Bacon and Picasso, and it has influenced the way in which she paints. This is seen most notably in relation to the treatment of light and in her use of glazes and transparent layers of paint. The paintings have backgrounds that are rich in colour, saturated and throbbing with paint, as if she is unable to show restraint. The colours are not those perhaps of an aestheticised Western canon and can feel opulent, oppressive and even garish; but they strike home with their message. She tries to live up to the credo of James Baldwin, American novelist, playwright, essayist, poet and activist that “the precise role of the artist is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through vast forests, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”
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