When Syrian artist Sara Shamma heard eyewitness reports of Yazidi women and girls being paraded on a platform by their Isis kidnappers in a modern slave market on the Iraqi/Syrian border before hundreds of glowering men, and then sold to the highest bidder, she was naturally shocked. Their prices, she discovered, were even advertised on the internet – the youngest being the most expensive.
Shamma decided she must do something. She’s one of Syria’s most celebrated portrait artists. She has won many prizes, and was shortlisted for the BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in 2004 when she was still in her 20s. I first met her in 2015 at her World Civil War Portraits show in London that was inspired by victims of the terrible slaughter then taking place in the civil war in her own country.
Since 2016, she’s been based in London where she has teamed up with the Institute of Psychiatry at King’s College on a research project looking at the psychological impact of trafficked people in England. She was invited to take up a residency at the university to make large-scale oil paintings in response to audio recordings she’s made of trafficked women, refugees and asylum seekers who have survived extreme cruelty. The culmination is Sara Shamma: Modern Slavery, an exhibition the aim of which is to shine a light on the plight of modern slaves. Shamma’s portraits are her emotional reaction to the testimonies she’s heard.
“The first interviews were very disturbing,” Shamma tells me. “I couldn’t sleep, I was so emotionally affected. By the time of the third interviews I began to hear the same stories again and again so I got used to it.”
The Fall, above, is a striking picture in which the inverted central figure overlaid on the main portrait makes a general statement about victims of slavery. “All these women are really falling down,” says Shamma. “They are trying to survive but you can feel that they’re falling.”
The painting incorporates many of Shamma’s signature features – the piercing eyes, the multi-coloured broad brushstrokes of the faces and bodies, the bold contrast between the crimson and the green, the extended fingers. Ghost-like transparent reflections abound. They express the trauma and reflections of the person these modern slaves might once have been until fate dealt them a bad hand. They’re the part of them that has died.
In and Out, above, is many-layered both conceptually and physically. The first layer sees the green, semi-translucent figures flailing around in mental torment. Shamma has created an effect of a soul in meltdown, swimming in a sea of despair. You can feel the damage in the shape of the central figure’s body. It could be seen as grief-stricken or perhaps it’s a yoga position redolent of healing. The raw nature of the pink reflections at the top and bottom indicates Shamma’s continued fascination with anatomy, a subject she studied in Syria before turning to art.
Time and again Shamma heard testimonies describing how trafficked peoples’ problems so often stemmed from the family. Many don’t even know who their families are, having been farmed out to strangers. Those that do know them are sometimes too ashamed to go back to them or won’t be accepted by them.
“A lady’s father might have died and then her uncle took her and raped her or maybe sold her. And the mother wasn’t there or maybe the mother helped in selling her, so the mother sometimes in this other world I’m telling about is the problem, sometimes she’s the rescuer…so motherhood is a big issue.”
In Double Motherhood, above, the mother in the centre is cradling the young child while the grandmother looks straight at us. Shamma has captured this ambivalence. Once again, the paint is laid on thickly but for the transparent colour. The artist has scratched a vertical line into the picture and left a random broad brushstroke to give perspective.
“The line makes me feel there’s a distance between the line and the painting. It pushes the whole painting backwards.” You see this feature in several of her works here.
The eyes have it
Shamma has also included in her show a series of simple line drawings on canvas that contrast with detailed, startling pairs of eyes. These are inspired partly by the leers of men directed at women in the streets of many countries in the middle-east. It’s the kind of voyeurism directed towards trafficked women too. The one above is typically lustful and threatening, the eyes almost glutinous with the light skilfully drawn.
There are an estimated 40 million people in domestic slavery around the world all suffering from trauma that can wreck their lives and their relationships with their children, families and communities. Shamma has given us here a visual glimpse into their damaged world.
Sara Shamma: Modern Slavery is showing at Arcade, Bush House, King’s College London South Wing, The Strand, London WC2B 4PJ until 22 November 2019.
All images are courtesy of the artist.