In the run-up to her exhibition Modern Slavery, the Syrian artist invites us into her London studio to talk about her creative process, recent upheaval, and why she likes to see in double.
‘The sun is very sharp here,’ observes Sara Shamma. ‘The way it hits your eyes is unexpected and transforms the way I see things.’
In our short film, the Syrian artist is standing in her light-filled studio in Dulwich and reflecting on how her paintings have changed since moving to South London three years ago. ‘I’ve started using blue and green in a big way. Cool colours – less of the warm reds and browns that perhaps came from my country.’
In 2012, a year after the civil war began, Shamma and her young family left Damascus for Lebanon. ‘It was a difficult time,’ she says with characteristic understatement, particularly as her husband, who was CEO of a big logistics company, stayed behind in Syria, intrepidly crossing the border each weekend to visit them.
Shamma put her dislocation and fear into her paintings, creating the monumental work Q, an extraordinary frieze of distended and deformed people, animals and birds waiting in line. Disturbingly Kafkaesque in appearance, it caught the attention of the press when it was exhibited at the Royal College of Art in London in 2013, with Shami Chakrabarti saying ‘the pain is put to great effect… and proves that it is art and culture that changes the world.’
Three years later, Shamma was awarded an exceptional talent visa, which allowed her, her husband and her two children to move to the UK. Having lived through a civil war, it would have been understandable if Shamma had opted for a quiet life. Instead, she embarked on a residency at King’s College London, working with victims of modern slavery.
‘When I was living in Lebanon, I kept hearing reports of Syrian refugees being kidnapped and sold on a platform, like they did in the old days. It horrified me and stayed in my mind, so when Kings approached me, I knew I wanted to understand more about what happened to those women.’
She was introduced to the human rights organisation, the Helen Bamber Foundation, which supports women who have been trafficked, and Shamma began to interview the survivors. ‘At first it was harrowing,’ she recalls, as the stories left her struggling to sleep. ‘But then it starts to become normalised and you get used to hearing these terrible things. There’s a lot of conflict there, between those women who were forced into slavery and those who went willingly in search of a better life.’
Was it difficult expressing such suffering on canvas? ‘When I start to paint, I disconnect,’ explains Shamma. ‘I don’t think or plan anything, I just immerse myself in the action, and wait to see what comes out – and I’m always surprised.’
She works with oil paint for the same reason, a medium she describes as a ‘living breathing entity – you can almost feel the blood coursing through it and you can never entirely control it’.
Shamma’s exhibition Modern Slaveryruns until 22 November at Bush House Arcade in London, and features 17 paintings and oil sketches of men and women inspired by the lives of trafficked women. Many of the works are a combination of different painting techniques, from gauzy feathery brushstrokes to bright impasto. ‘I love that contrast, it’s like seeing two different paintings on the same surface,’ she says.
In some paintings, such as In & Out, above,the figures appear to have doppelgängers – pallid spectral twins that emerge out of the shadows. Are they a metaphor for buried trauma? ‘I love to see double, it’s a game I like to play,’ Shamma explains. ‘Those transparent figures emerge when I blur my eyes.’
She is constantly scrutinising faces, trying to imagine the hidden layers beneath – ‘the bone, the brain, the thoughts’. She doesn’t think of herself as a spiritual person. ‘I’m very grounded,’ she says. I’ve had to be.’ But, she concedes, ‘we are all haunted by the things we’ve left behind.’