While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, Hannah Rose Thomas worked with UNHCR to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for an exhibition to commemorate World Refugee Day. After hearing refugees’ stories, she came up with the innovative idea of recycling old UNHCR tents as a canvas for refugees to express themselves. The goal was to turn symbols of loss and displacement – the refugee tents – into beautiful pieces of artwork, in order to raise awareness for the plight of refugees. The results were so powerful that the tents were exhibited in locations across the world. Hannah later returned to Jordan in 2016 to organise an art project with Syrian refugees living in Azraq and Za’atari refugee camps, with the support of UNICEF and Relief International.
The aim is for the work to inspire compassion, awareness of shared humanity – HRT
In 2017 she travelled to Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, with clinical psychologist Dr Sarah Whittaker-Howe for an art project with Yezidi women who had escaped ISIS captivity. Hannah taught the women to paint their self-portraits as a way to share their stories with the rest of the world. The aim of the project was to use art as a tool for advocacy; bringing their stories into places of influence in the Global North. Testimony is an important element of the recovery process post-torture and sexual violence. After learning to draw and paint for the first time, the Yezidi women requested that Hannah paint their portraits; these paintings convey their dignity, resilience and unspeakable grief.
In 2018 Hannah visited the refugee camps in Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh through the NGO BRAC. Over one million Rohingya refugees have fled violence across the border in neighbouring Myanmar. During her time in the Kutupalong refugee camp, she spent her mornings painting with children in one of 200 Child-Friendly Spaces run by BRAC. In the afternoons she met with many Rohingya women and listened to their heart-rending stories. Following her return from Bangladesh, Hannah painted a number of portraits of the Rohingya women she met. The aim of the project and paintings was to highlight the plight of the Rohingya community.
Later in 2018, Hannah also spent a week in Northern Nigeria for a trauma healing programme with a group of survivors of brutal violence at the hands of either Boko Haram or Fulani militants. The project was facilitated by Open Doors. She taught the women to paint their self-portraits, sewing vibrant African fabric onto the canvas for the finishing touch. The simple act of painting their self-portraits was a way to affirm their identity and value, so important considering the isolation and shame these women have experienced, due to the stigma of sexual violence.
Hannah’s ‘Tears of Gold’ exhibition is part of an online exhibition for the UN with Google Arts & Culture ‘The Future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow’ launched to mark the UN’s 75th Anniversary. Hannah’s portraits of Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women remind us of the power of art to convey meaning, promote understanding and healing when languages fail us. Her striking use of religious symbolism and gold leaf communicate the sacred value of every individual regardless of gender, race or religion.
JE: While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, you organised art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR. This experience led you to seek ways to combine your art and humanitarian work. Can you tell us how that came about and the effect that experience has had on your subsequent practice?
HRT: Ever since I was young I have also had this desire to be a voice for the voiceless somehow but never imagined that this could be through art.
While living in Jordan as an Arabic student in 2014, I had an opportunity to organise art projects with Syrian refugees for UNHCR – an experience which opened my eyes to the magnitude of the refugee crisis confronting our world today. I began to paint the portraits of some of the refugees I had met, to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are otherwise often shrouded by statistics. It was to share their stories that I began painting their portraits.
I’ve since had the privilege of organising art projects with Yezidi women who escaped ISIS captivity in Iraqi Kurdistan; Rohingya refugees in Bangladeshi camps and Christian women survivors of sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram and Fulani militants in Northern Nigeria.
These art projects and my portraits have been shown in places of influence in the West, including the UK Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Lambeth Palace and Westminster Abbey, in the hope of empowering their voices to be heard. All too often their suffering remains unseen and unheard.
JE: As you have explained your practice has become one of painting portraits of refugees you have met to show the people behind the global crisis, whose personal stories are often shrouded by statistics. How has your portrait painting developed through the study you have undertaken; both aesthetically and in terms of awareness-raising?
HRT: During my MA at the Prince’s School of Traditional Art, I specialised in early Renaissance egg tempera painting and gilding. For the portraits of Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women, from my Tears of Gold exhibition, I chose the sacred imagery, painting techniques and gold leaf traditionally used for paintings of the Virgin Mary – the Mater Dolorosa, Mother of Sorrows – in the Renaissance. This is because Mary, like these Yezidi, Rohingya and Nigerian women, knew what it means to be poor, oppressed, a refugee; and for her heart to be pierced with grief at the loss of her beloved Son.
These paintings, like those of the Mater Dolorosa, seek to emotionally engage the viewer and inspire compassion, and are also meditations on the universal human experiences of suffering, grief and loss. In these portraits, we see a glimpse of the women’s unspeakable grief but it is also a reminder that we all face grief, sorrow and loss at different times in life. We are not so different; we are inextricably connected to one another.
As a portrait painter, I hope to communicate something of the beauty and worth of each individual in the eyes of God, regardless of race, religion, gender or social status. The use of gold leaf for my paintings of Yezidi and Nigerian women is to show the sacred value of these women, in spite of all that they have suffered. It is symbolic of the restoration of dignity, especially important considering the stigma surrounding sexual violence.
JE: Your aim is always to give voice to the voiceless and prescribe dignity to the persecuted. How does portrait painting achieve those ends?
HRT: Paintings from the exhibition ‘Tears of Gold’ have been shown in places including Buckingham Palace, at the invitation of HRH the Prince of Wales; Lambeth Palace; UK Houses of Parliament; European Parliament; the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO); Department for International Development (DfID); GCHQ and Westminster Abbey. For many of the exhibitions, I displayed my portraits alongside the women’s self-portraits as a striking juxtaposition. One of the intentional aspects of this work is that my paintings have been able to intersect between the art and the political and humanitarian worlds to influence key decision-makers. The hope is for this exhibition to empower the women’s voices to be heard and highlight the issue of sexual violence and the persecution of religious and ethnic minorities. The portraits depict women from three different parts of the world who are doubly vulnerable on account of their faith and/or ethnicity and their gender. I hope the paintings are a visual testimony not only of war and injustice but also of humanity, dignity and resilience.
JE: Your work with refugees and persecuted peoples since 2017 has now been collected in a virtual exhibition ‘The Future is Unwritten: Artists for Tomorrow’ alongside eight other inspirational artists to mark the UN’s 75th Anniversary. How did the ‘Tears of Gold’ exhibition come about?
HRT: ‘Tears of Gold’ came about as a result of my time organising art projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bangladeshi refugee camps, and Northern Nigeria these last few years. During the art projects, I taught the women how to paint their self-portraits as a way to share their stories with the rest of the world. Many of the women chose to paint themselves with glistening tears of gold: this inspired the title of the exhibition. The purpose of these art projects was two-fold – both therapeutic and for advocacy, to empower the women’s voices to be heard. The women understood that the aim was for these paintings to be shown in places of influence in the West to advocate on their behalf. Many survivors of unspeakable violence experience a profound sense of powerlessness, an overwhelming and deeply rooted feeling that they do not have a voice. Thus one of the primary needs of survivors is to feel like a person again, to rediscover their own sense of personhood and voice. The hope was that these art projects would create a space that honours the experience and the women’s stories, and therefore enable restoration of dignity.
‘Tears of Gold’ was due to be shown at the UN HQ in New York, but due to COVID-19, it became a virtual exhibition to mark the UN’s 75th Anniversary this year. However, technology has been a powerful way for the portraits and the women’s testimonies to be seen and heard by even more people, while it is not possible to do in-person exhibitions during the pandemic.
JE: To what extent is ‘Tears of Gold’ new development in your work and to what extent is it a retrospective and, therefore a point of reflection in terms of your practice?
HRT: ‘Tears of Gold’ developed themes from my first solo exhibition held in London in June 2016 for UK Refugee Week. It was entitled ‘The Divine Image: For Mercy Has A Human Heart’, and collected my portraits of refugees whom I had met in Jordan and the ‘Calais Jungle’, displayed alongside the artwork created by Syrian refugee children. The hope was to inspire empathy and remind us of our shared humanity, thereby counteracting the negative portrayal of refugees in the media.
I believe the creative arts can be a powerful way to speak out against injustice. Art can touch the emotional core of what moves us toward social justice and compassion in ways that news or political analysis often cannot. As artists, we can bring mercy and hope as well as beauty into the world. The arts affirm the language of empathy – they can provide us with a language for mediating the broken relational and cultural divides. Art can help bridge these divides through creating empathy based on shared humanity, counteracting a fear of the unknown and ‘Other’; reminding us that we have more in common than what divides us.
JE: By raising awareness of the plight of marginalised and refugee communities you are seeking political change in the West. What changes do you wish to see and how might they be achieved?
HRT: The aim is for the work to inspire compassion, awareness of shared humanity and therefore our ethical responsibility to one another. I believe that nothing is more important than compassion for another’s suffering. But I think we can become inured to the pain and injustice in the world with the constant flood of negative news and images in the media. My paintings are an attempt to recreate a face-to-face encounter of sorts, a reminder of the individuals at the heart of these humanitarian crises, which often seem so distant and at times difficult to relate to. The philosopher Emmanuel Lévinas says, when we encounter the face of the ‘other’, especially in their suffering, it transforms us, and leads to mutual understanding and respect. It is human nature to fear those who are different to us, especially in the current political climate that accentuates difference and fear. However, when we close down the borders of our hearts (and those of our countries) to those who are different we impoverish ourselves and restrict and limit our own lives.
JE: In your PhD studies you are exploring links between art and ideas drawn from philosophy and theology. I think there are significant connections between those three in Simone Weil’s claim that pure undivided attention – of the sort paid by artists and viewers of art – is prayer. What connections have you been exploring through your studies?
HRT: The creative act is a profound expression of attention: Simone Weil writes that ‘attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer’ (Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 117). Following my return from the art projects in Iraqi Kurdistan, Bangladesh and Nigeria I poured my heart into painting portraits of the women. Often tears would silently fall while painting and thinking about all that the women had endured, and their ongoing suffering. The process of painting their portraits was in many ways an active form of prayer. The paintings are visual psalms; outpourings of lament. I think that perhaps because a painting is born of contemplation, it can help create space for viewers to contemplate too. As Weil writes, the work of art is ‘that which we can contemplate. A statue, a picture which we can gaze at for hours […] on which we can fix our attention’ (Weil, Gravity and Grace, p. 149). This contemplation can lead to genuinely new ways of seeing the ‘other.’
JE: You are seeking to use art as a tool for advocacy as well as contemplation, bringing stories of refugees into places of influence in the West, but do so by exhibiting your work? How do you manage the balance between these aspects of your practice?
HRT: This tension is the reason my paintings have been shown in public and political spaces, rather than commercial art galleries. I feel conflicted about the idea of selling the paintings or receiving commercial gain from the work since the portraits depict survivors of violence and violation. However, this means that I have not yet found a way to make this kind of work sustainable in the long term.
JE: You were selected for the ‘Forbes 30 Under 30 2019’ and ‘The Women of the Future Award 2020’. How does this recognition assist your work?
HRT: It is my desire to continue developing a deeper understanding of the transformative and restorative effects of the arts with regard to promoting human rights, dialogue and peace-building. In particular to be involved in further artist-led projects and initiatives which harness the arts or use arts-based methods in post-conflict and migratory settings. However, the main obstacle is the difficulty in securing funding for such projects. This recognition I hope highlights the potential of this work and may help create new opportunities in the future both for myself and other ‘artivists’ – to use the term coined by the Artlords in Afghanistan – in this emergent field.
JE: You are the only visual artist shortlisted for the Women of the Future Award 2020. Who else, in the current art world, do you see addressing similar issues or with whom you feel a sense of solidarity? How could the art world more effectively address the issue of the refugee crisis?
HRT: There are many artists who are using their skills and creativity to address similar issues and also those who engage in community arts work with refugees and marginalised communities. The arts can be used as a way to change negative perceptions and enable intercultural dialogue. I believe that artists can help lead the way toward reconnection, reconciliation and reintegration; we have a responsibility to rehumanise the divide. Two artists that come to mind are the internationally renowned Ai Weiwei and his film ‘Human Flow’ and Marc Quinn’s series of sculptures ‘100 Heads.’ However, it is a real challenge for artists, who are not already firmly established, to make this kind of work financially viable – this is where there could be potential for real change in the art world.
JE: In partnership with The Future is Unwritten, you took part in a recent event highlighting the innovative use of art to tackle complex health issues. You spoke there about your work with the Yazidi community but you have also taken part in a trauma healing programme in Northern Nigeria with a group of survivors of sexual violence at the hands of either Boko Haram or Fulani militants. From your experience, what is the power of art to support healing, greater understanding, community solace, and hope for the future?
HRT: What I’ve experienced so far is but a glimpse of the potential healing and restorative power of the arts. I’ve witnessed first-hand the comfort that art and creativity can bring, but there is so much more to learn.
The art projects created a safe place for women to share their stories. Many of the key texts on trauma healing suggest two primary foundations: the building of a safe space as the container for sharing a story. Telling our stories helps to integrate traumatic memories and gradually begin to heal and to reclaim our dignity after we have been hurt. However, research has shown that for survivors of human rights violations, everyday verbal language is often inadequate to convey the extent of the trauma and depth of emotions. The arts can help a person’s wellbeing by giving a new form of communication to address the silence and unspeakable pain.
Sharing our stories enables us to connect, even across cultural and linguistic barriers, and reminds us that we have more in common than what divides us. This encounter helps us to heal. For, as Desmond Tutu explains, ‘it is our shared humanity, our shared losses, and our shared grief that ultimately allow us to reconnect again with the world around us. We are harmed together and we heal together.’