In the past year, the atrocities occurring in Syria have made news headlines on a regular basis. Artist Sara Shamma recently had to flee Damascus because of the conflict. She left behind her home and studio and currently lives and works in Lebanon, the country of her mother’s birth. Shamma was born in Damascus, Syria (1975), to a family of intellectuals who encouraged her love of painting as a small child. Shamma graduated from the Faculty of Fine Arts, University of Damascus, in 1998.
Shamma’s first solo exhibition in London is centred on one of her most important pieces to date: a 16.5m long ‘Q’ comprising ten individual paintings that fit together as a composite whole. Q, that essentialises the depiction of a queue, is used by the artist as a metaphor for a transformative space where the individual metamorphoses into assuming the identity of the group. We witness the dilution of the individual as the pressure of the group mentality encroaches and receive insight into Shamma’s personal experience of recent events in the Middle East and, most pertinently, her native Syria.
The queue builds a feeling of anticipation as passers-by assume those in the line must be waiting for something significant and this prompts them to also join the queue. The British are infamous for queuing – whether it be hundreds of aficionados who queue up overnight for the RCA secret postcard sale, the tennis fans who queue for day tickets to Wimbledon, the hordes of shoppers waiting for the doors to open for the Harrods’ sale or the Apple fans queuing for the latest iPhone! As Tate pointed out in 2005, a survey found that the British spend the equivalent of 23 days a year in line. But there are also queues that elicit fear rather than excitement such as the photographs we have seen showing queues of Syrians in exodus crossing the border.
Long before the Syrian crisis Shamma had been curious about the psychology of the queue:
‘Each person in the queue might have something nice about him as an individual, but once he becomes part of the queue he loses his uniqueness and becomes part of the group, gang or troop. This gives me a bad feeling. A person might stand in a queue without really thinking about it. He may not even need what he will receive at the end. Often, he may simply join because he knows people in the queue, or because he just sees people in a queue and therefore instinctively thinks that he should take his place behind them. The herd in the animal kingdom is a justifiable example, but the group mentality in the human race is complicated by expectations and anxiety that can often lead to trouble.’
Taking the queue as the starting point, the works in the exhibition delve into the broader issues of the war in Syria and its effects. Yet Shamma is not overtly political; her work is more about humanity in a wider sense and group psychology.